The Chalk Garden
by Enid Bagnold
This was a brave production by your company in many ways, one of which was the historical aspect pertaining to it. It was written many, many years age and I suppose it may be true that one could say that plays like this one are not written nowadays. Plots are different, dialogue certainly is, and we have to move with the times - as I am constantly being accused of not doing by both my sons,, one of whom is a lighting director who has spent years in theatre. But just to sit, listen and watch your actors, challenged as they were, in telling this fascinating story, spinning this quite magical and difficult dialogue, getting to grips with the difficulties Enid Bagnold had placed them in all these years later, surely means that there is still a place in modern theatre for such challenges. The name Shakespeare springs to mind – not in a comparative way, of course.
An added piece of history is the fact that it was the second production of your company at St Werburgh’s in 1974 when the famous name of Geoffrey Kellett initiated that, and you’re are still here. Well done!
The set was well designed and constructed, and, as there was a fair amount of movement involved, quite functional. Huge US windows opened on to a view of the garden – important because it is the title and frequently mentioned. Door SL, USR and SR. The SL door was the house front door, which led to a short corridor USL to room, entrance used frequently by the butler, and door into main room. Other doors led to the rest of the house. Furniture as for a living-room; table SL for eating purposes; settee, chairs and occasional tables with appropriate contents. As the play progressed there was an “at home” feeling amongst the cast as if they were familiar using the room or were becoming at home there.
The story involves Mrs St Maugham, “a fine Lady – of fading beauty and wealth”, who seeks a governess for her 16-years old granddaughter, who manages to drive away everyone and of whom, she is beginning to lose control. One of the applicants, a Miss Madrigal, a woman with an extremely mysterious past, manages to get the job which involves taking over the management of the garden. This doesn’t go down well with granddaughter, Laurel, who tries to expose her. Further complications arise when her married/divorced/re-married/pregnant mother, Olivia, whom she hasn’t seen for four years, turns up and tries to take Laurel back. There are shocks in store, and so, grandmother invites a friend of hers to lunch. She feels he might be able to give her some advice because he is a High Court Judge and his experience might help. When it transpires that Miss Madrigal is known to the judge, and he recognises her, it complicates the matter further, particularly as, not only, were no references provided, but questions were not answered, and information was refused.
Acting out the increasingly complicated story was the task presented to your actors and it involved skill, belief, emotional involvement, deep thought and complete dedication to the various roles. That was their challenge.
Mrs St Maugham, the grandmother, was played by Rosemary Mark. She attacked this difficult part with the depth of feeling which clearly showed us the developing problems with her granddaughter, Laurel; with her daughter, Olivia, her chalk garden, and the fact that, with increasing age, the problems were becoming insurmountable. When the ostensible solution by her friend, the judge, produced totally unforeseen developments on top of what she was going through anyway, we were shown emotional depths allied to age by this experienced, dedicated, skilful actress. Through intense anger, deviation, worry, concern, love, hope and eventual reconciliation we accompanied her on her journey and felt with her every step of the way.
Sue Maher played Miss Madrigal who had come for interview with a view to helping Mrs St Maugham with her problems with Laurel, and her various domestic problems, one of which was the under-achieving garden. Here again, we witnessed a deep, thought provoking characterisation, full of heart , soul and unanswered questions and unexplained regrets and resentments, which tended to suggest that something had happened in the past which had influenced an unhappy life. Sue had thought deeply about this difficult character and we appreciated the portrayal of this mysterious woman who was destined to have such an effect on this household, and its desire to bring sweetness and light. On and off throughout, she spent the first pages of the play, just sitting and listening to inconsequential dialogue while waiting to be interviewed, but we could read through the expressions flitting across her face, the thoughts going through her mind, as she listened – an object lesson to us all. She had scenes with all cast members that were of dramatic intensity and true feeling, and the cast deserved praise for the way they worked with each other, so convincingly.
Alexia Pieretti was Laurel, the troublesome granddaughter. I believe this was her first performance for the company. Her characterisation was full of energy and enthusiasm, and she used the stage so well. A difficult role of many moods and issues to display, she portrayed them all as if she were living through them. She believed them all because the actress within her believed them all, so her performance was full of truth and skill.
Arthur Hulse was Maitland, the butler. He was full of life, full of interest in his dialogue and, as he had been here for many years, had many stories to tell. With backgrounds to fill in, explanations to help out with, and in many ways, a rock for grandmother to depend on, not always without an argument, but still with affection and feeling, with military smartness and energy, Arthur is always an interesting actor to watch. The detail and mathematical precision with which he set the table was worth the admission price on its own.
Jane Parker played Olivia, Laurel’s mother, come to reclaim her. Her costumes positively lit up the stage, and the justifiable fire with which she emotionally stated her reasons for wanting her daughter back, would have forced anyone to listen and consider what she had been going through. Secure in her lines and moves, she owned the stage when she was on it and gave a performance of deep feeling and understanding of a troubled woman trying to come to terms with. and make sense of. what had happened. and how the future would be affected.
It is said there are no small parts in theatre – true, because all are important otherwise they wouldn’t exist. Helen Carter, Amritha Janardanan and Laura Collier, as the nurse, certainly got all it was possible to get out of their minimal stage-time, and added their strength to the production.
Direction, and the role of the Judge, were in the vastly skilful and experienced hands of Roger Browne, who master-minded all that went on. He directed this play with supreme understanding, and drew performances of merit from all his actors. There was an overall obvious air of team playing, and working for each other within the team. It was easy to become involved in this story, as if, by some miracle, one had become somehow caught up in a slice of real life taking place here and now. Well played, all concerned in creating that illusion, because they understood the situations they were in and expressed their emotions with feeling and belief in the story they were telling.
Roger’s personal performance as the judge, showed great depth and feeling. There initially in an advisory capacity, the moving way he responded to realising that he was personally involved showed an actor displaying a skill and an understanding not given to many of us, on top of directing this difficult play, which he must have made a pleasure to be involved with. “One man in his time plays many parts”. Well played to all involved in any way, and remember, “we are such stuff as dreams are made on”.
Thank you for your welcome and warm hospitality. Happy play making.