The Chalk Garden is Enid Bagnold’s 1956 drawing-room comedy that places a trio of eccentric, rebellious and strong-willed women at its heart.
For its London debut, Sir John Gielgud cast Peggy Ashcroft and Dame Edith Evans in leading roles. This revival enlists Penelope Keith, who plays the imperious Mrs St Maugham, a whey-faced matriarch from a bygone Britain of upper-class masters and their beleaguered servants. She is pitch perfect in the role but not all of the cast are such a natural fit and the drama falters in spite of her presence.
The plot pivots around Mrs St Maugham’s unruly teenage granddaughter, Laurel (Emma Curtis), and a nanny hired to look after her. Just as Bagnold’s bestselling novel, National Velvet, contained doubleness and disguise (a girl winning the Grand National dressed as a boy) so the nanny, Miss Madrigal, (Amanda Root) is concealing a criminal past.
Curtis is adept enough at the comedy, but she does not channel its tender side: as a child, Laurel lost her father and she claims to have been sexually abused. Her mother has also remarried and left the family home: “My mother is a Jezebel. She is so overloaded with sex, it sparkles,” she says. Her anger and inner torment are key to the play’s emotional charge but moments of pain and pathos are under- or overplayed by Curtis, who delivers her lines but does not seem to inhabit them.
Root is better at balancing comedy with pathos as Miss Madrigal: her early presence sparks an intriguing tension inside the family and there are tragicomic shades of Herman Melville’s Bartleby in her polite refusals and protests (“I prefer not to,” she says, when Mrs St Maugham commands her to answer the phone).
Michael Grandage’s 2008 revival of the play at the Donmar in London was praised for the emotional honesty that its leads brought to their roles, and it is this deeper humanity that is absent here. There is neither enough of an emotional voltage to move the audience nor the slick comic delivery for Bagnold’s sparkling one-liners to set the mood. The pace does pick up in the third, final, act and it is in this final half hour that the play begins to fizz and come alive.
Bagnold meant for her edgy dialogue on class bigotries and mother-daughter Freudian dysfunctions to provoke unease, but her comedy here comes without this bite. In this incarnation, The Chalk Garden is gently amusing but hopelessly twee.
- At Chichester Festival theatre until 16 June. Box office: 01243 781312.