One doesn’t gush orrrrfen but I feel I have to about The Chalk Garden at the Donmar Warehouse, which I saw last night.
You might have thought this was creaky old war horse and wondered why Michael Grandage dug it up, but it turns out to be best re-discovery on the London stage since “Absolute Hell”. Probably the best play that will be on this year. Beautifully written, like a cross between Wilde and Albee and hilariously funny.
All the cast are top of their game. Why Penelope Wilton and Margaret Tyzack aren’t Dames already is beyond me. For those who watch tv it also has Clifford Rose from Secret Army, playing yet another authority figure.!
Paddy Angle – the part of Miss Madrigal was created by Oirland’s own Siobhan McKenna, on Broadway in 1955, for which she was Tony nominated. Not a girl to have her head turned she decided to forego the bright lights and return to her native land where she went on to become even more revered than the Blessed Virgin Lady. It premiered on Broadway because Binkie Beumont didn’t have faith in it, until of course it became a hit after which he snapped it up.
Posh angle – The author Enid Bagnold was Samantha Cameron’s grandmother. She married the Chairman of Reuters became Lady Jones and had lots of servants thus enabling her to write beautifully. Brecht could have written a parable about it.
THE CHALK GARDEN. THE DONMAR WAREHOUSE.
It’s a truth, universally acknowledged, that for a musical to succeed, you need to have a leading man or woman (preferably both) for whom you can root. The only exception I can think of is Sweeney Todd – and even that show was never the popular success of, say, My Fair Lady, Guys and Dolls, West Side Story or Rodgers and Hammerstein’s blockbusters.
One of the numerous problems with Marguerite, the new Boublil/Schonberg musical, with lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer and music by Michel Legrand, is that its titular heroine (Ruthie Henshall) is a loose-living opportunist, who, during France’s occupation by the Nazis, has an affair with a Nazi general called Otto (Alexander Hanson), not because she loves him but because of the nylon stockings and other gifts his status provides.
In the original story by Alexandre Dumas of which this is just one more variation, Marguerite was a courtesan who sacrifices her genuine love for a well-connected young man when her lover’s father persuades her to end the affair or risk ruining his son’s life and reputation.
This time round she’s a middle-aged singer who, despite her involvement with Otto, falls for Armand (Julian Ovenden) a handsome young pianist whose sister Annette (Annalene Beechey) works for the resistance. Needless to say, the ordure hits the fan. Armand becomes a hunted man, his sister is tortured by the Gestapo, he shoots Otto at close range and goes into hiding.
As soon as the war is over, Marguerite, now seen as a collaborator, is physically abused and humiliated by the same Parisian ‘friends’ who benefited from her affair with Otto. She dies from some unspecified condition as the curtain falls. Doom and gloom prevail without a single laugh to leaven the bleakness of it all. And there wasn’t a moist eye in the house.
Blame this on an ill-conceived book by Messrs Boublil, Schonberg and Jonathan Kent, who also directed. The authors totally fail to make you care for any of the two-dimensional characters, the sub-plot is marginally more interesting than the central romance, and a sense of deja vu seeps miasma-like through the show’s two short acts.
Michel Legrand has written some potentially attractive tunes but what we have is a collection of songs (mainly ballads) rather than a fully integrated score. His melodies, as pretty as they are, never rise to the kind of sweeping climax Andrew Lloyd Webber is so good at concocting, and, consequently, fail to invite applause. A big mistake, this.
Herbert Kretzmer’s elegant, thoroughly professional lyrics do their best to advance what little plot there is, but I wish I’d heard more of them in the duets and trios.
Kent’s direction is workmanlike, though his decision to begin the curtain calls without a single note of music until Ruthie Henshall appears for the final call is not only insulting to the rest of the cast, but just bad theatre. With so downbeat an ending, surely you’d immediately want to raise the audience’s sagging spirits with some upbeat music?
As Marguerite, Henshall gives her all. She sings well and is clearly committed to the role. But it’s a cold performance that never engages your sympathy. And while there’s not much to like or admire about her character, one should at least feel some compassion for her. Julian Ovenden sings well and looks good – but the role allows him to do little more than mope, which he does effectively enough. The best performance is Alexander Hanson’s Otto. The part is an elongated cliché, but at least he covers it in flesh and bones.
The undisputed success of this work in- progress is Paul Brown’s smokey, visually striking set, whose stylish, opulence contrasts dramatically with the murky existence of the show’s leading character, her fetid involvement with her Nazi admirer, and her drab, unfulfilled romance with Armand.
It’s one thing removing the ‘comedy’ from musical comedy. Trouble is, Boublil, Schonberg and Kent, in attempting to write a musical with gravitas, haven’t found anything to replace it with.
CLIVE HIRSCHHORN. Courtesy of This Is London.