It has been a long time since anyone wrote a line like “Maitland, bring the creme de menthe and two glasses.” The line was consciously old-fashioned in 1955 when Enid Bagnold wrote it, and, what’s more, she was using it with malice of aforethought. As Michael Grandage’s magnificently taut, grippingly-acted production proves, Bagnold’s iconoclastic “The Chalk Garden” is as surprising and subversive now as it was then. This is less a revival than a revelation.
Mrs. St. Maugham (Margaret Tyzack) is a staunchly outspoken, elderly woman living in dwindling grandeur in her country house where all is far from well. Her rambling household includes an unseen butler dying upstairs; her manservant Maitland (Jamie Glover), given to hysterics following five years’ imprisonment as a conscientious objector; and her defiant, adolescent granddaughter Laurel (Felicity Jones), who sets fire to things.
“My father shot himself when I was 12. I was in the room,” Laurel proudly announces to Miss Madrigal (Penelope Wilton), who answers an advertisement to become Laurel’s companion/governess. Laurel is lying, we soon discover, but, emotionally, so is almost everyone else rattling around a house that is as sterile as its garden so ruinously built on unfertile chalk.
Bagnold’s most audacious trick was to disguise her coruscating study of mother/daughter relationships, lovelessness and the collapse of upper-class control as a laugh-aloud comedy. Her dialogue has a glistening comic surface that Oscar Wilde would have envied.
Imperiousness personified, Tyzack’s hilariously vicious Mrs. St. Maugham doesn’t just speak the lines, she wields them like a croquet player knocking out the opposition. Furious at being unable to eavesdrop on a critical conversation, she barks, “One is never at one’s best behind mahogany.”
The play is also a psychological thriller pivoting around Wilton’s Miss Madrigal. Few women’s roles are as darkly diverse as this one, and most actors lucky enough to nab it would seize every possibility to win sympathy for this stark, ambiguous woman.
Wilton never does. Ramrod-backed and exacting, her commanding self-containment grows from being intriguing to truly alarming. When her secret is torn out of her, a shiver rips through the auditorium.
With Wilton delivering a master class in expressive withholding — her silences are as eloquent as her judgments — Grandage balances her with positively ripe performances from the rest of his immaculate cast.
Everyone, right down to Steph Bramwell and Linda Broughton in delicious cameo appearances as applicants for the governess post, delivers Bagnold’s arch dialogue with absolute relish. Grandage’s minute control of tone ensures that although the play is set in a bygone era ushered in by Adam Cork’s subtle sound score for yearning strings and echoing piano, no one descends into affected “period” mannerisms.
As Laurel, coltish Jones has a whale of a time leaping about and winding herself around the faded furniture on Peter McKintosh’s marvelously lived-in single set of a shabby conservatory. Very specifically evoking a 1950s girlhood, Jones nonetheless allows us to see pre-echoes of disturbed adolescence that are the stuff of countless contemporary plays.
Like the girls in Lillian Hellman’s “The Children’s Hour,” she uses her sense of hurt to wield power over adults. Her returning mother (poised but determined Suzanne Burden) is clearly in for a hard time.
Burden is given more than her fair share of epigrams, but rather than indulging the laugh-raising phrasemaking, Grandage keeps his foot firmly on the accelerator. He drives the dialogue onward to build tension, making it fascinatingly clear that these characters hide behind language as they cling nostalgically to a world fast spiraling out of their control.
Today, Bagnold is best remembered for her novel “National Velvet.” This “Chalk Garden” revival, however, may introduce the late author to a new audience, with its scintillating attack on the stultifying effects of class control. A West End transfer seems highly probable, if only to allow more theatergoers to discover what Wilton’s Miss Madrigal so thrillingly describes as “the astonishment of living.”