Grey Gardens at Southwark Playhouse. Clockwise from top left to right: Jenna Russell, Sheila Hancock, Aaron Sidwell, Rachel Anne Rayham, Jenna Russell, Sheila Hancock. © Scott Rylander

Grey Gardens at Southwark Playhouse. Clockwise from top left to right: Jenna Russell, Sheila Hancock, Aaron Sidwell, Rachel Anne Rayham, Jenna Russell, Sheila Hancock. © Scott Rylander

Producer Danielle Tarento and director Thom Southerland have created another Off-West End mega-hit musical. In fact, Grey Gardens has broken all box office records at Southwark Playhouse where it has already sold out, eclipsing the pair’s other much-loved Broadway musical reclamations at the same address over the past five years: Grand Hotel (2015 – spot the chandelier outside the entrance to the Large auditorium), Titanic (2013), Mack & Mabel (2012) and Parade (2011).

Grey Gardens is based on the spectacular riches-to-rags-and-recluses real-life story of Edith and Edie Bouvier Beale, the aunt and cousin of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, as depicted in the 1975 documentary film of the same name. Grey Gardens is the name of the mansion in the summer resort of East Hamptons, Long Island, where the mother and daughter spent most of their lives, in increasingly squalid, cat- and flea-bitten conditions.

In the musical, Act One takes place in 1941 on the day of an Edie’s engagement party to Joseph P Kennedy Jr (JFK’s older brother, who was killed in action in the Second World War in 1944); Act Two is set 32 years later, after the Health Department has deemed the mansion ‘unfit for human habitation’.

Grey Gardens – conceived by Scott Frankel, who also wrote the music, with book by Doug Wright and lyrics by Michael Korie – had its world premiere Off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizon in February 2006 before transferring to Broadway’s Walter Kerr Theatre that November. At the 2007 Tony Awards, it was nominated for ten Tonys and won three, including for the two leading ladies, Christine Ebersole and Mary Louise Wilson.

“It has to be discovered”

This new London production, which marks Grey Gardens’ European premiere, stars Jenna Russell plays Edith in Act One and Edie in Act Two, Sheila Hancock plays Edith in Act Two and newcomer Rachel Anne Rayham is young Edie in Act One. Also in the cast are: Aaron Sidwell, Billy Boyle, Ako Mitchell and two girls (one of whom is the young Jackie O), played alternately by four child actresses, Alana Hinge, Grace Jenkins, Rebecca Nardin and Eleanor Waldron.

Interestingly, while rounding up the reviews below, I’ve noticed a real divide between the reviews from the national newspapers, many of which are lukewarm and suggest that Grey Gardens has niche appeal, and from other outlets, including no fewer than FIVE of my fellow My Theatre Mates bloggers, most of which have lavished the show with four- and five-star acclaim. My daughter was first prescribed Ventolin at the age of four when she had pneumonia. The doctor said that this medication can help her breathe easier, so we started the same day. Ventolin did help her a lot, and soon she was healthy. We ordered this preparation on because they offer drugs at reasonable prices and give professional consultations.

This chimes with something the musical’s creator Scott Frankel shared at a post-show Q&A at Southwark Playhouse I attended on Friday night. He and his collaborators had waited for the right team and venue to bring the show to life in London he said because they felt strongly that it had to be a small-scale production in an Off-West End venue: “It has to be discovered,” said Scott.

And, in that, thanks to Tarento, Southerland, audiences at Southwark Playhouse are certainly doing that. See also my other blog on highlights from Friday’s Q&A and another piece by Scott Frankel on the inspiration behind Grey Gardens.

Grey Gardens continues at Southwark Playhouse until 6 February 2016. Although it has sold out, there are four house seats per performance that, if not reserved, will be released at midday each day (5pm the previous day for matinees). There’s also a returns list, which starts selling at the box office at 5.30pm for evening performances, 1pm for matinees in person only.

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Reviews – My Theatre Mates
Strong flavoured individuality and sour wit make even its darker moments provoke a laugh or a cheer… Sheila Hancock, triumphantly grimy and defiantly dishevelled in the bug-ridden bed, becomes a kind of queen. The cast found it hard to stop the audience roaring for more curtain-calls…
The drama of this show is as magnificent as its music, with an ingenious casting conceit. We meet Sheila Hancock, the elderly Edith as the curtain rises, though she is quickly transformed into Jenna Russell who plays (the younger) Edith in act one and (an elder) Edie after the break….
Thom Southerland and Danielle Tarento solidify their reputation for salvaging ancient wrecks off the American coast… Jenna Russell’s outstanding musical and comic turn as a 56-year-old Young Edie at the top of the second half is already the funniest thing you’ll see on stage this year…
Thom Southerland’s deft and pretty flawless production further adds to that “disconnect” between the 1940s and 70s by playing out the entire drama – including the glory days of the Grey Gardens mansion – in its withering shell (marvellous set from Tom Rogers)…
LIZ DYER – ★★★★★
It’s always a bit nerve-wracking as a reviewer to go and see a show that everyone’s been raving about, but this fantastic and beautifully performed musical more than deserves all the praise that’s being heaped upon it, and I can’t recommend it enough…

Reviews – Newspapers
Henry Hitchings: This offbeat musical pictures the putrid yet poignant lives of Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale and her daughter Little Edie, the aunt and cousin of Jackie Kennedy…Tom Southerland’s production works its magic slowly but is ultimately moving — and for Jenna Russell, at her very best when conveying the mannered awkwardness of the mature Edie, it’s a triumph.
Susannah Clapp: This first half…supplies some narrative push and Kennedy reverberation. Yet it is ordinary compared to the real joy of what follows. This is a stupendous feat of mimicry. Russell is eerily, gloriously, like the real thing. Her gait is slumberous, her moods dance like a kite…
Sarah Hemming: It’s smart, intriguing and funny, though overly baggy, and delivered with customary snap and flair by rising director Thom Southerland… Hancock is immensely poignant as the rebellious old Edith and Russell (who also plays Edith in the first half) is outstanding as Edie…
Paul Taylor: In the utterly brilliant double pulled off by Jenna Russell, the actress first appears as the 46 year old matriarch in her prime, typically striving to hog the limelight at the 1941 party for her daughter’s conjectural engagement to Joseph Kennedy with an absurdly lengthy song recital…
Michael Billington: High Society meets What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? in this look back at a socialite mother and daughter’s downfall… Jenna Russell demonstrates her star quality by playing the domineering mother in the first half and the life-deprived daughter in the second…
Dominic Cavendish: Sheila Hancock is superb, but this musical about a reclusive American mother and daughter frustrates… Now 82, Sheila Hancock delivers a must-see, typically glorious performance in the London…
TIMES – ★★
Ann Treneman: The set says it all. The house is a mess and not just a boho mishmash but an actual horror… Some of the chorus interventions are bizarre. In the end, as Little Edie warbled on about loneliness, I found that I just didn’t care at all…
Quentin Letts: Niche appeal… To see Miss Hancock is a pleasure, her mannerisms grandly actressy, her octogenarian glamour so bespoke. After the interval she sings a couple of songs with a charming frailty, but neither she nor Miss Russell is fully in character. One for the cognoscenti I fear…
Reviews – Around the web
THE STAGE – ★★★★
Mark Shenton: 2016 has barely started, yet I am already wondering if we’ll see a stranger story told in musical form all year, or one with such a darkly insinuating appeal…
Lettie Mckie: Hancock’s performance is well worth the wait. She is disgusting, demanding, elegant, tragic and oddly charming as the bed-ridden old lady who feeds corn to the handyman and keeps 52 cats…
ARTS DESK – ★★★★
Matt Wolf: One of the more unusual Broadway offerings crosses the Atlantic with considerable style in an Off West End premiere that punches well above its weight…
GAY TIMES – ✭✭✭✭✭
Tom Cox: For those who have seen the 1975 documentary, the Edies need no introduction. Waltzing around their squalid mansion, cousin and aunt of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, this mother and daughter pair are fabulously barmy…
Doug Mayo: You will be hard pressed to see a better production of this musical. The casting is near perfect. Southwark Playhouse is building a strong reputation for presenting wonderful modern musicals…
Karl O’Doherty: What makes this really pop, is Tom Roger’s faded-glory mansion set. Grey wood, fallen ornaments, leaves and debris, clutter everywhere… A depressing illustration of what happens when self-esteem no longer matters.