Sometimes in life, we all wish we could turn back the clock and relive aspects of our timeline that are special to us. Obviously, that isn’t possible but occasionally things arrange themselves so that we have an opportunity to recreate a time of our life when we were happy. But is this really possible? People move on and the past is the past for a reason. This theme is explored in depth in Lillian Hellman’s play The Autumn Garden which is having its UK premiere at Jermyn Street Theatre.
In September 1949, Constance Tuckerman’s (Hilary Maclean) exclusive hotel is expecting some important visitors. Constance, her niece Sophie (Madeleine Millar) and ‘butler’ Leon (Salim Sai) are trying to get the hotel ready but the rest of her guests keep hanging around and not vacating the main lounge. On the surface, the inhabitants of the hotel are exactly as you would expect to find in an exclusive hotel in the deep south. But underneath there are tensions aplenty amongst the throng. Constance’s old friend and hotel regular Edward (Mark Aiken) is drinking too much. Rose Griggs (Lucy Akhurst) and her husband General Griggs (Tom Mannion) are sniping at each other in that way that married couples can. Domineering mother Carrie Ellis (Gretchen Egolf) is trying to get her son Frederick (Sam Coulson) to go along to a party with her and his ‘fiancee’ Sophie. Her attempts aren’t helped by the waspish comments from her mother Mary (Susan Porrett) – possibly the most sensible person in the hotel. Eventually, to Constance’s relief, everyone goes off to party or sit on the verandah having a drink just in time as Nick Denery (Mark Healy) and his wife Nina (Madalena Alberto) – along with maid Hilda (Leonie Schliesing) arrive. Nick, a successful artist, used to live in the area and is old friends with Constance, Edward (Ned) and Carrie and the four of them used to holiday together in the house in days gone by. Nick is trying to recreate those days but can that be done, especially in an environment where good manners hides many a true personality?
It could be considered cataclysmic for a reviewer to not know what to write about a show but that is the problem I have had with The Autumn Garden. Part of the problem for me was that there was so much going on, at times I felt as if I was dropping into a soap opera there seemed to be so many storylines happening at once. For me, The Autumn Garden has too many characters with twelve in total so that very few of them get a chance to be developed. Indeed the characters of Leon and Hilda feel totally superfluous to the plot doing virtually nothing apart from pointing out that someone in the south has a black butler and the Denery’s have come from Europe with a German maid. In some ways, it is the same with Rose who seems to have been added for some form of comic effect rather than to advance the story at all which is a real shame as Lucy Akhurst plays her so well. And the story of Frederick and his possibly inappropriate friendship with the unseen writer is simply a minor distraction on the route to the end of the play. Having said this, my favourite of the, for want of a better word, minor characters was definitely Mrs Mary Ellis who is not only beautifully written as a down to earth, plain speaking woman with a wonderfully acerbic turn of phrase, but is brought to life in real style by Susan Porrett.
Of the more major characters, I have to mention Mark Healy’s Nick, who is a thoroughly unlikeable person in every way. His treatment of both his wife and Constance – threatening to leave the hotel if he didn’t get his way – is reprehensible and in a drunk state, when he stops hiding behind a sort of forced geniality, Nick’s real personality comes out brilliantly and Mark really portrays the true man behind the smile. I also have to highlight Madeleine Millar whose portrayal of the young – but wise beyond her years – Sophie was first rate. So much so that when she has her full and frank talk with Niina, my jaw literally fell open with surprise.
For the penultimate paragraph of my review, let’s turn to the non-acting side of the show. The set by Gregor Donnelly gave a good impression of a house somewhat gone to seed and the costumes were nicely era appropriate, especially the ladies dresses – someone obviously knows a good haberdashery – and the whole production was nicely directed by Anthony Briggs. Actually, whilst I’m on the creative side, I loved the music all the way through, particularly the way it came from the right place – eg when someone played a record, we heard it from the record player so well done to Sound Designer Tania Holland Williams.
To sum up then. I quite liked The Autumn Garden which is a very well presented piece of theatre. My main issue with the show is to do with the writing which, I believe had too many characters and stories going on. After nearly three hours, as the play ended, I felt rather underwhelmed and that the writer had missed an opportunity to tell one good story from start to finish. Having said that, the production itself is very well put together and pretty entertaining throughout and definitely worth seeing.
Review by Terry Eastham
A London premiere from the Pulitzer-prize winning author of The Children’s Hour and The Little Foxes.
The Gulf of Mexico, 1949. The formerly well off Tuckerman family has hit hard times. To make ends meet, Constance Tuckerman has opened up the old summerhouse to family and friends as paying guests. As the season draws to a close and the guests prepare for one last party, tensions rise as Constance awaits the arrival of her former fiance and his glamorous wife.
Lillian Hellman’s The Autumn Garden is a tender and wryly funny tale from one of the most acclaimed and controversial American writers of the twentieth century.
The Autumn Garden
Wed, 5th – Sat, 29th October
Jermyn Street Theatre presents
The Autumn Garden
Directed by Anthony Biggs
Assistant Director/Sound by Tania Holland Williams
Designed Gregor Donnelly
Lighting design by Tim Mascall
Composer Luke Bateman
Lucy Akhurst (Rose), Madalena Alberto (Nina), Mark Aiken (Ned), Sam Coulson (Freddy), Gretchen Egolf (Carrie), Mark Healy (Nick), Hilary Maclean (Constance), Tom Mannion (General Griggs), Madeleine Millar (Sophie), Susan Porrett (Mrs Ellis), Salim Sai (Leon) and Leonie Schliesing (Hilda).
Jermyn Street Theatre,
16b Jermyn Street,
London SW1Y 6ST