The Theatreguide.London Review
The Chalk Garden
Donmar Theatre Summer 2008
If great acting consists of the meticulous construction of real and rounded character out of individual lines, reactions and even moments of stillness, then some of the best acting in London is to be found at the Donmar.
Penelope Wilton and Margaret Tyzack bring Enid Bagnold's 1955 domestic melodrama to rich, vibrant life with a mastery that makes it all look so very easy.
Some would class Bagnold's play as a comedy, and indeed there are a good quota of laughs along the way. But at least in this revival directed with extraordinary grace and sensitivity by Michael Grandage it is a drama of small but important truths gradually revealed and small but important people gradually understood.
An eccentric old woman hires a governess for the teenaged granddaughter who lives with her because both are estranged from the girl's mother.
The newcomer has a Big Secret that is telegraphed so far in advance it won't surprise you. But the others are shown to have smaller secrets of their own, admissions of failure or limitation that they may have been hiding from themselves as well as others.
It is in the slow uncovering of these small but character-shaping truths that the core of the play lies, as well as the opportunities for the two veteran actresses to display their absolute mastery.
(It may have been a director's deliberate decision to set off these two subtle performances by guiding Felicity Jones as the girl and Jamie Glover as an excitable servant to much broader and external acting, but I'm inclined to think that a mistake. The two secondary performers unfairly come out looking shallow and inept in comparison to the stars.)
The garden of the title, set in arid soil and tended by an owner without a green thumb, becomes a symbol of both the need for love and nurturing and the limits of good intentions.
And what Bagnold and her actresses let us discover, as the characters themselves discover it, is both their capacity for love and dedication and their need to recognise and accept their failings.
And for two hours of absolute reality, this will matter to you.
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