Review: Grey Gardens (Squabbalogic Independent Music Theatre)

Venue: Seymour Centre (Sydney NSW), Nov 18 – Dec 12, 2015
Book: Doug Wright
Music: Scott Frankel
Lyrics: Michael Korie
Director: Jay James-Moody
Cast: Sienna Arnold, Caitlin Berry, Maggie Blinco, Kelly Callaghan, Beth Daly, Blake Erickson, Sian Fuller, Jenna Keenan, Simon McLachlan, Russell Newman, Timothy Springs
Images by Michael Francis

Theatre review
The legendary Edies made their way into public consciousness through the now classic Maysles documentary film of 1975, Grey Gardens. It was an instant hit, but unlike many documentaries that seem to lose relevance beyond the time of their emergence, this is a story that has captivated every subsequent generation. The last decade especially has been particularly illustrious for the mother-daughter pairing, with the Maysles releasing a second documentary about the same subjects on home video, along with a prominent feature film by HBO, and a Broadway musical paying tribute to the famous eccentrics.

The musical commences in the heyday of Grey Gardens, a time when glitzy parties at the East Hamptons property saw the rich and important mingle, and where social status was the greatest of currencies. It is soon revealed however, that all is not well in the Beale household. Big Edie has been abandoned by a philandering husband, and finds herself left with nothing but the mansion and a daughter desperate to be married off to a Kennedy. In Act Two, we return thirty-three years later to discover the two women in their famous dilapidation. We are bewildered by their spectacular descent from glory to squalor, and the failure of the Edies to explain the predicament only makes us more intrigued.

Their allure is beautifully encapsulated by the writing. Larger than life personalities, frightful circumstances, piercing humour and cruel social realities; all the best ingredients of the beloved documentary have made their way into the musical. There is an abundance of wit for endless amusement and enjoyable tunes that have us entranced, inspired by the stranger than fiction characters and their delightfully curious ways.

The songs are performed marvellously under Jay James-Moody’s direction. Every musical number is conceived with flair, creativity and nuance, utilising the cast’s considerable talents to great effect. Sequences between songs are less successfully realised, with chemistry between performers faltering in the absence of choreography and singing. The production suffers from an overall lack of precision and polish, but it is a show with spirit, buoyed by Beth Daly’s astonishing portrayal of middle-aged Little Edie. Breathtakingly accurate re-enactments of iconic film moments and a thorough understanding of her character’s traits, allow Daly to create a theatrical marvel that is deeply endearing and incredibly impressive. The effect her Little Edie has on us, is little different from what the real McCoy delivers in the original film. We are shocked, confused, saddened but powerfully moved by her extraordinary story. Maggie Blinco and Caitlin Berry play the other Edies (at different ages), both accomplished and compelling with their respective interpretations. Blake Erickson is memorable in the supporting role of George Gould Strong, providing a dramatic but subtly comical performance, accentuated by a remarkable singing voice that never fails to seize our attention.

The production is ambitious with its visual elements but does not quite hit the mark. Lighting design by the inventive Benjamin Brockman is heavily relied upon to depict time and spacial shifts in the presence of a domineering yet inflexible set. Costumes are charming when imitating the documentary’s looks, but they fall short at delivering the extravagant decadence necessary in Act One. On a brighter note, the show’s sound design by Jessica James-Moody and music direction by Hayden Barltrop are executed with great fervour and brilliant sensitivity. The aural landscape of the show is the chief element that takes us through every step of the plot, and it does so thoughtfully, with an effortless elegance.

What the Edies represent, is the notion of freedom, or more accurately the lack thereof. Grey Gardens insists that we consider how the women had arrived at their disappointing state of affairs, and through that discussion, to go on and think about issues of personal volition, kinship and the consequences of forsaken responsibilities. Big Edie’s father, husband and sons had all but discarded our protagonists, and what we encounter is the harsh truth of what remained. We wish that the Edies had been stronger and more resourceful, but the irrefutable fact is that they were deserted and destroyed. We all have a right to live the lives we dream, but we are also bound by the people who need us. We can simply walk away, but the price to pay can sometimes be too great.

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