Ten years after scooping three Tony awards on Broadway, this unusual, at times beguiling but finally tiresome musical about two relations of Jackie Kennedy Onassis living in squalor on Long Island arrives with star casting at the Southwark Playhouse.
Sheila Hancock – a dame-worthy octogenarian of undiminished vitality and comic charm – plays the old aunt Edith Bouvier Beale, locked in the past of a 28-room mansion once inhabited by Howard Hughes and various Kennedys, and Jenna Russell her middle-aged daughter, Edie, described as that most pitiable of creatures, an actress without a stage.
Like Miss Havisham and Estella holed up in Satis House, they keep the world at bay while wallowing in the accumulated detritus of their memories and faded dreams. This is in 1973. The first act, set in 1941, shows how this happened: Edith's husband (Billy Boyle), a Wall Street financier, high-tails it to Mexico with a mistress, while young Jo Patrick Kennedy Jr (Aaron Sidwell), the elder brother of the future president, who was killed in the war, does a runner as a suitor to young Edie when he discovers she's dated other boys.
The musical – ambitious book by Doug Wright, skilful music by Scott Frankel, occasionally over-wrought lyrics by Michael Korie – is based on a 1975 television documentary about the old biddies that has become a cult phenomenon. It operates on the mother/daughter axis of Gypsy, or Kander and Ebb's The Rink, though there's no killer song to prove that, as the latter show has it, the apple never falls very far from the tree.
Instead, Hancock subsides arthritically on her bed, feebly waving the stars and stripes as the manse is invaded by ghosts – these are the notorious cats that ran wild in Grey Gardens, an idea only partially developed – and Russell hogs the limelight as the oddly dressed, ostracised eccentric she became ("They get you in East Hampton for wearing red shoes on a Thursday").
The daughter is the shadow of her mother and, having met Edith and Little Edie in the prologue, we then meet Young Little Edie (an incredibly fragile Rachel Anne Rayham) as the girl squashed by disillusion. Her privileged High Society-style world, the sense of which is reinforced in Thom Southerland's production by a lovely performance from Ako Mitchell as the black servant at ease with his own slavery, is dramatically eclipsed by spiritual and physical impoverishment.
Well, on paper, at least…the whole show never quite clicks into the idea it has of itself. The dynamic is skewed, too, in Little Edie's favour, and Russell takes full advantage of one or two songs that have real lyrical intensity and melodic grace. These moments suggest that, in such an intimate theatre, the musical arrangements might have been better done acoustically. The noise and blah does not really suit the content, the sound system (usual grumble) is bad, and the mikes on the actors look like weird facial scars.
Grey Gardens runs at Southwark Playhouse until 6 February.