REVIEW: The Chalk Garden

Chichester Festival Theatre.

Mrs St Maugham enjoys placing advertisements in the papers for hired help. She enjoys the encounters, it seems, with those who apply for the role of companion, of sorts, to her wayward granddaughter. It distracts her from the disappointments of her chalk garden where the blooms seldom, well, bloom, writes Ian Murray.

But when the awkward Miss Madrigal agrees, almost against the better wishes of both ladies, to take on the role both child and garden are set to flourish in different ways.

At once both country-house comedy of manners (never-to-be-seen aged butler upstairs, distracted man servant, rampaging nurse) and psychological thriller (bitter family feud, dark secrets, histories of suicides and violent assaults) The Chalk Garden opened to rave reviews in New York in 1955 after Enid Bagnold’s play had been turned down by the West End.

It was the culmination of her life-long ambition to be taken seriously as a play write, even though she had already immense fame as the author of National Velvet.

Many in the audience for this Chichester Festival revival directed by Alan Strachan may have attended in the simple expectation of that country house comedy. And in deed Penelope Keith is marvellous in the role of Mrs St Maugham, forever able to rise above the disappointments of her later years with a quick-witted observation or dismissal. Keith gets by far the lion’s share of the best lines and with impeccable timing doesn’t fail to delight.

The wonderful Amanda Root plays Miss Madrigal, quickly labelled ‘Boss’ by her charge Laurel and manservant Maitland, played here by Emma Curtis and Matthew Cottle. Oliver Ford Davies is the judge who arrives for lunch and inadvertently sets in motion the events for the play’s awkward finale.

The feud between Mrs St Maughan and her daughter Olivia (Caroline Harker) is unsatisfactorily explained, and the conflict between the two women never seems plausible in this production. Indeed, the pendulum between comedy and thriller is set far enough towards light relief – perhaps with the Chichester audience in mind – that not even themes of cowardice and child murder are strong enough to prevent a longing for the return to the stage of the magically abrupt Mrs St Maugham whenever she quits the scene.

In the background there is always the garden, Miss Madrigal’s simple truths regarding the importance of correct nurturing providing a running theme for the play.

Runs until June 16.

Ian Murray