On Saturday 2nd January we all went to see the first preview (the matinee) of Grey Gardens at the Southwark Playhouse. The two big names in it were Sheila Hancock and Jenna Russell. Jenna Russell is a big name in musical theatre, though looking at her CV in the programme I don't think I've ever seen her before.
The performances were good throughout (I don't think it's unreasonable to make allowances for the strength of an 82-year-old's singing voice, which was perfectly tuneful), but Jenna Russell certainly stood out. Excellence in both singing and acting isn't an inevitable combination, but she has it.
While watching it I also thought that it would have worked well as a straight play, and there are very few musicals that you could say that of (the fact that the mother was a singer is an important part of the plot, so it is natural that some of the songs are there). It's based on an apparently famous/notorious 1975 documentary of the same name on the odd life in reduced circumstances of Jackie Kennedy's aunt and cousin, but very wisely the musical (Wikipedia entry here) included as a first half a depiction of the household in its 1941 heyday, on the purported occasion of the party celebrating the daughter's engagement to Joe Kennedy Jr. (Jenna Russell plays the daughter in 1973 and the mother in 1941; Sheila Hancock plays the mother in 1973.)
The play was well-written, and the songs weren't too bad for a modern musical (of course some of the songs were written for a style appropriate to songs the mother might have sung in 1941).
It was a first preview, so it would of course be unfair to review any production on that basis, but this, like my other similar notes, isn't a review in any real sense of the word. To my mind the miking was sometimes a little too loud in the spoken sections and not loud enough in the singing, but Bethan didn't think the former, and that's certainly something that would be ironed out if it is actually the case rather than just my ears. One thing which did jar, to the extent that I actually sent a Tweet to the company to mention it (!), was that the record which the mother had purportedly recorded before the war and which they 'played' in 1973 was a 45 when it should surely have been a 78, but again that may have been something that was being sorted out. Some of the accents seemed a bit patchy, but to be honest I don't judge a performance on how good someone is at mimicking a particular American accent (British, now that's a different matter...).
There were two girls (aged 13 and 10) in the cast (of nine), playing Jackie Kennedy and her sister, and one thing which particularly struck me was that they sang in the ensemble numbers, just as any cast member would. I'm not sure if that's especially notable, but it struck me at the time as unusual; they certainly held their own.
Previews are over, reviews are out... (interestingly, half the hits on the first page of Google results are articles from before it started - and first off, I'm reminded by one of those snippets that it's the European premier, which was slightly surprising, given the strength of the story, and the amount of off-west-end productions alone that come out every year). Telegraph (loved Sheila Hancock; oddly to me, hated the 1941 section as an unnecessary dilution of the 1973 section, exactly the opposite to my reaction; 1973 alone would have just been tedious, dingy and without depth). Guardian (3/5, like Telegraph). Independent (4/5; gives a clue to the Telegraph's antipathy, indicating how closely the second half follows the documentary - somewhere else said some of the lines are used verbatim - and how that documentary really became a Rocky Horror type cult classic with people copying the look and the lines; if you're devoted to that, the first half isn't what you want; to someone coming to it fresh, any wider audience, the first half is indispensible). BritishTheatre (5/5; a reminder that it's a good set - the audience is on three sides, the fourth wall is the back wall and balcony of the living room area of the main stage; packed full of detail; a longer review, mentioning more of cast and production team, thanks to it being an online review I guess). The Stage. TheGayUK (another first-half-hater). Gay Times (another fan of the 'camp classic' documentary (potential fans of camp classics did seem to be as well-represented in the audience as a lot of the musicals I go to, though not as many as Xanadu...), but seeing the value of the 1941 section in the musical). West End Whinger (currently down to one Whinger, it seems; 'Little Edie’s number, “The Revolutionary Costume for Today” is as camp as it is hilarious and brilliantly performed by Jenna Russell who is absolutely at the top of her game here. How many single men of-a-certain-age (and there were a lot of single men of-a-certain-age at our performance) headed home to their bathroom mirrors and attempted “a Persian shawl, that used to hang on the bedroom wall, pinned under the chin, adorned with a pin and pulled into a twist” look? Go on admit it. We did.' ... 'The sound designer’s “live band knob” was cranked up far too high, which drowned swathes of the lyrics in Act 1 at the preview we attended, but things improved in Act 2.' ... 'Out of Andrew’s party (6 single men of-a-certain-age), 2 admitted to welling up at the end. Rather surprisingly Andrew was one of them and he hadn’t felt this emotional since he found out the queue created by Southwark’s unreserved seating policy begins at around 6.45pm for a curtain up at 7.30pm. Now that’s what we call batty.' - we were surprised to turn up 15 mins before the start to find that the place was almost full; we didn't hurry to get there earlier because often they haven't let us into the theatre more than 10/15 mins before the start). The Reviews Hub ('A few details mean this can’t take five stars. It’s a small enough venue, intimate, so the choice to amplify the singers voices seems a little overbearing and the mics are distracting from this close up'; reminds me of the rice crispie mics, intrusive to start with, though you do get used to them a bit; in this production/performance not on cheek but in the middle of the forehead like an Indian jewel; they still have to sort out a way to resolve this, that if you're going to start mic-ing up stage actors/singers, then less obtrusive technology is going to have to develop, and amplification finesse is going to have to improve to not have a distancing effect from the performance). West End Wilma ('Musically, Grey Gardens is very much in the 1940’s style with no real eleven o’clock number to write home about but some good songs like ‘Marry Well’, ‘Daddy’s Girl’, ‘Peas In A Pod’ and ‘The Revolutionary Costume For Today’ which received huge applause from the audience at the beginning of act 2. ... Jenna Russell is a credit to Musical Theatre.' - what may have been intended as a criticism of the music is why I liked it). What's On Stage ('Hancock subsides arthritically on her bed, feebly waving the stars and stripes as the manse is invaded by ghosts – these are the notorious cats that ran wild in Grey Gardens' - forgot this, a nice touch. 'in such an intimate theatre, the musical arrangements might have been better done acoustically. The noise and blah does not really suit the content, the sound system (usual grumble) is bad, and the mikes on the actors look like weird facial scars'). Theatre Cat (Libby Purves). British Theatre Guide (more trouble with sound, partly configuration and partly amplification they reckon; for all the comments, however, and their accuracy, not hearing the words is a common issue with anything involving songs). West End Frame (' It's such a luxury for an off-West End production to have a ten piece band, they play in a separate room to enable sound levels to be perfected - a big step forward for the Southwark Playhouse. ... I can't decide whether I think the piece would work in the West End. I wouldn't want any intimacy to be lost; however, if tweaked appropriately Southerland's production could be destined for future life. The cast are certainly West End standard (Russell would be an award season favourite)' - I didn't realise that was the band set-up, which makes sense, as we certainly couldn't work out where they were; I did think it could work in the West End, and as with many fringe productions I've seen the production is certainly the equal of it). Musical Theatre Review ('If Act I were a full length musical, it would be a fine piece, evocative of an era while touching on topics that the coy 1940s may only have hinted at. But where Grey Gardens elevates beyond that is in a complete tonal shift in Act II.' - there's certainly a big contrast, but it works, and you do feel the through-line even though the journey from 1941 to 1973 is (happily) not over-explained). Gizzle Review (new to me). Mature Times (also new to me).
Generally positive, then, and criticisms mostly minor ones I agree with or major ones I disagree with.
And what have we learned? Family relationships can tangle you up. Things can drift or stagnate if you don't have a Plan B. You can slide into strangeness without realising you've moved beyond normal or reasonable. It doesn't take much.