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GREY GARDENS – Southwark Playhouse, London.

347526_770_previewDanielle Tarento has another hit on her hands, tackling the story of the lesser-known cousin and aunt of former US First Lady Jackie Onassis.

The Edith Bouvier-Beale duo (known colloquially as “Big Edie” and “Little Edie”) are first introduced to us in the prologue during their twilight years, with the scene-stealing Jenna Russell representing a middle-aged Little Edie opposite Sheila Hancock as the frail, long-past-her-prime mother figure. Both are destitute, living in squalor, and yearning for their younger years when both aspired to be on the stage.

Act 1 races along with insurmountable energy and class, zipping back in time with Russell playing Big Edie when she was a forty-something wannabe-stage performer. Rachel Anne Rayham’s delicate Little Edie is small in stature but certainly not in style, belting out strong notes of despair as her attention-seeking mother continually pushes her into the shadows.

Make no mistake though; this musical is a comedy. Sure, it tackles some heavier dramatic moments, particularly in Act 2, but Thom Southerland’s assured production is hinged on the humour found in all of the flawed of relationships. Aside from the two Edie’s battling with each other for their share of the limelight, we’re treated to brilliant supporting performances particularly from Jeremy Legat as Big Edie’s irresistibly camp pianist and “soulmate”. Aaron Sidwell proves his versatility by taking on dual roles, as Little Edie’s fiancé Joe Kennedy (older brother of John F Kennedy, for those of you needing historical context!) and later, as Jerry, a teenage companion to the elder Edies.

At times the booming sound effects overpower what should be a subtler moment of dramatic intensity, and this is made all the more uncomfortable by the fact that the Southwark Playhouse is such a small space. Thankfully the actors are miked up so vocals aren’t overpowered.

Lee Proud has expertly weaved some huge moves into tiny spaces, which is necessary, particularly in Act 1, to convey the opulent ‘High Society’ lifestyle the Bouvier’s are living at that point. It accentuates the poverty that the Edies are subject to in Act 2, as their lives unravel. At this point, the narrative becomes more labored and lacks the pace of the first half, but thanks to a heart-breaking final scene the production ends by packing a real emotional punch. I was fortunate to be sat facing Russell during her final moment and as I watched real tears roll down her face, I was reminded that I was in the presence of musical royalty.

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Reviewed 07/01/16

By Caroline Cronin

2nd January – 6th February 2016
Southwark Playhouse, London, SE1 6BD.

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