The riches to rags plight of one of America’s glittering families has earned cult status in the US after being made into a must-watch, warts-and-all, documentary and feature film.
But, unless you take a keen interest in the Kennedy clan and its relatives, most folks in Britain are unlikely to know much about Big Edie and her daughter, Little Edie Bouvier Beale, aunt and niece of Jackie O.
The women went from a gilded existence, socialising with the likes of Getty and Howard Hughes, to eccentric old biddies living in a condemned slum that was filled with cats.
I suspect all that is about to change with the opening of Grey Gardens at London’s Southwark Playhouse, the wonderfully told and beautifully acted story that will break your heart.
But be aware that a lot of journalistic licence has been used by Doug Wright in writing the book which is based on that now infamous documentary by David and Albert Maysles.
The problem with using real life subjects, particularly those whose grasp on reality is tenuous to say the least, is that they are prone to exaggerate and embellish.
But don’t let the facts get in the way of an excellent story and one which will have you crying with laughter and sobbing with the shear tragedy of these women’s lives. Most of all you will walk out, shaking your head in astonishment, wondering how it ever came to pass.
Grey Gardens is a ringing endorsement for woman-power in the theatre. The show is produced by lady-of-the-moment Danielle Tarento and stars an 82-year-old actress who refutes any suggestion of retirement; a legend of West End musical theatre; and an up-and-coming talent who will soon have directors falling over each other to sign her up.
Sheila Hancock, Jenna Russell and Rachel Anne Rayham together play the mother and daughter, in different eras, whose tempestuous relationship survived a lifetime of ups and downs – and they are phenomenal.
Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale came from one of America’s most prominent and privileged families and lived in a splendid 28-room mansion in East Hampton called Grey Gardens.
She was aunt to her brother’s high spirited daughters, Jacqueline (later Kennedy Onassis) and Lee, and mother to two boys and a girl, also called Edie. Both Edies, despite their social position, loved performing and singing.
We meet the family in 1941, on the eve of Little Edie’s wedding to hotshot bomber pilot and the politically ambitious Joseph Patrick Kennedy, oldest son of the Kennedy clan and destined – if his father has his way – to be President.
But things don’t go to plan. Edie (Rayham) dreams of a racy and colourful life on the stage while Joe (a dashing performance from charismatic Aaron Sidwell) wants a nice conservative Catholic running mate to shore up his ascendancy to the White House. Most of all he doesn’t want scandal.
While the family implore Joe not to do anything rash Big Edie (Russell) receives a telegram which is to alter her life forever.
Fast forward 32 years and Big Edie, now played by Sheila Hancock, sits in bed surrounded by squalor. She’s dressed in pale lemon culottes, a polo-neck tied around her thin body, and a tatty floral housecoat.
The once grand house is a flea-infested wreck, occupied by a reclusive and frail old lady, 52 cats, and a raccoon.
With her is her spinster daughter Edie (now Russell), mad as a box of frogs, who covers her bald head with a cardigan and turns a jacket into a makeshift skirt held together with safety pins. They look like a pair of bag ladies…who have gone even further to seed.
Director Thom Southerland works wonders to stage Grey Gardens in the confines of Southwark Playhouse’s intimate performance space.
It’s not easy to include dance routines when there’s barely enough room for the ensemble to stand together amid a busy set.
The show contains more than 20 superb Scott Frankel songs, including The Girl Who Has Everything, and they have the most sublime and witty lyrics (courtesy of Michael Korie).
They give the whole production the feel of a vintage Broadway musical – like a nightmarish sequel to High Society.
The first act is the more traditional and dramatic as mother and daughter clash in the build-up to the wedding.
The second is a heartfelt black comedy, and a complete change of pace, with the poignant and desperate state of the women’s lives offset by their bizarre and unconventional behaviour.
They talk to the audience as they may well have talked to camera in the Maysles’ documentary and it’s unnerving.
Sheila Hancock gives a touching performance as the faded society hostess who is now vulnerable and reliant on her unstable daughter. It is impossible not to pity how hard she has fallen, robbed of comfort and normality by poverty.
Jenna Russell’s potty Edie is eye-wateringly hysterical. Hands on hips she stares defiantly out to the theatre-goers making excuses and wisecracks for the way they live…and the women form the best double act in modern theatre.
I don’t want to criticise the accents, as they may be entirely true to how the real women sounded in the documentary, but Sheila Hancock is more South Carolina Belle than East Coast Socialite while Russell’s accent was less high society and more New Jersey blue collar (she sounded like my mother for god’s sake!).
Rachel Anne Rayham, who plays young Edie, circa 1941, is a firecracker whose powerful voice is every bit as sensational as Jenna Russell.
There is good support from Jeremy Legat as Big Edie’s pianist and confidante, George Gould Strong (he has some great one-liners), Billy Boyle as the patriarch, JV Major Bouvier and Ako Mitchell as the dependable manservant Brooks.
Heart-wrenching, hysterically funny, profoundly tragic. Head off West End for the hottest ticket in town. Grey Gardens runs at Southwark Playhouse until Feb 6.
Heart-wrenching, hysterically funny, profoundly tragic with triumphant performances from leading ladies Sheila Hancock & Jenna Russell. Head off West End for the hottest ticket in town. Grey Gardens, at Southwark Playhouse.