This week in London’s theatreland: Shelia Hancock’s fragile eccentricity is superb in Grey Gardens

The award-winning Broadway musical based on the scandalous 1970s documentary makes its London debut

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This musical by Doug Wright, Scott Frankel and Michael Korie finally has its London premiere nine years after the Broadway production picked up a trio of Tony Awards, and marks another triumph for the Southwark Playhouse and director Thom Sutherland following last year’s staging of Grand Hotel.

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Based on fact, but bolstered with fiction, the real bit takes as its source the acclaimed 1975 documentary of the same title by brothers David and Albert Maysles. Their film created something of a scandal in the US when it revealed that two relations — a mother and daughter, both called Edith — of former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy were living in squalor in a dilapidated, flea-infested mansion in the Hamptons, with only numerous cats for company.


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Here, Sheila Hancock and Jenna Russell take the roles of Edith and Little Edie, respectively, and are perfectly cast in this funny, melancholy and often heart-wrenching tale of thwarted ambition and loss.

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Sheila Hancock and Jenna Russell spar in the second act 

The first act — the made-up bit — depicts Grey Gardens in its 1940s heyday with the family at the centre of affluent Hamptons society; a merry-go-round of parties and musical soirées where days revolved around the cocktail hour. Hancock is largely sidelined for this first act in which Russell takes the role of fun-loving, older Edie. There are nice turns from Rachel Anne Rayham as the younger Edie and Aaron Sidwell as her suitor Joseph Patrick Kennedy. But as the act comes to a close, personal problems start to reveal cracks in this seemingly idyllic life.

It’s the second act of Sutherland’s production where the show really comes into its own, however, thanks to mesmerising performances from Hancock and Russell as the two women now living alone and clinging to memories of a glamorous life that’s gone forever. And it’s here where Frankel and Korie’s score is also at its strongest on numbers such The Revolutionary Costume for Today and the haunting Another Winter in a Summer Town.

The chemistry between the leads is magical. Hancock’s depiction of fragile eccentricity is superb, while Russell is hilarious and heartbreaking by turns as the woman still dreaming of a life away from Grey Gardens, but never really finding an escape.

Grey Gardens is at Southwark Playhouse until 6th February


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