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The Chalk Garden

Published 12 June 2008

If all good stories are based on truth, then Enid Bagnold’s The Chalk Garden is a prime example. So eccentric are the characters and so obscure the situation that this play could surely not have been invented if it did not spring from an occurrence in Bagnold’s own life.

Set in 1956, the play is a glimpse into the off-kilter family life of the elderly Mrs St Maugham and her precocious 16-year old granddaughter Laurel, who live with manservant Maitland in a manor house in rural Sussex. Both as melodramatic as each other – Laurel is particularly fond of screaming and setting fire to things – grandmother and granddaughter happily indulge each other’s eccentricities while the nervy, harried Maitland wallows in his status as much put-upon servant, running round the pair in a blood pressure-raising frenzy.

Into this situation comes the mysterious Miss Madrigal, who answers Mrs St Maugham’s advert for a companion for Laurel. Seemingly reserved and cautious, the newcomer nevertheless wins over the household with her own slightly oddball habits and her impassioned knowledge of the manor house garden, which is the unseen playground for both grandmother and granddaughter. Miss Madrigal swiftly takes charge in this unstructured household, taming Laurel and the garden and earning the nickname ‘boss’ by standing up to the much talked about but never seen bullish butler Mr Pinkbell. But when Mrs St Maugham’s judge friend comes to dinner, Miss Madrigal’s past comes back to impinge on her present.

Bagnold’s rich development of her characters means we gain an insight into their lives that reaches far beyond this little excerpt. Penelope Wilton as Miss Madrigal and Margaret Tyzack as Mrs St Maugham both have an expressive delivery that makes the most of Bagnold’s witty and highly entertaining script. As forceful and strong as each other – at least on the surface – the relationship between the pair develops into one of mutual need and understanding.

Felicity Jones captures the unruly and attention-seeking nature of young Laurel, characteristics nurtured by her grandmother, who, selfishly, would keep Laurel living with her rather than allow her to return to live with Olivia (Suzanne Burden), Laurel’s recently-remarried mother. Jamie Glover completes the household as Maitland, who, with his phobia of criticism and obsession with murderesses, is as bizarrely eccentric as the people he serves.

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