REVIEW: THE AUTUMN GARDEN (Jermyn Street Theatre) ★★★★
Considered to be Lillian Hellman’s best play by contemporary critics and the author herself, THE AUTUMN GARDEN has never been seen in London. The Jermyn Street Theatre now presents the London premiere of this neglected work by the Pulitzer-prize winning author.
Set in 1949, the play takes place in Constance Tuckerman’s summer house, about 100 miles from New Orleans, near the Gulf of Mexico. The former affluent Tuckerman family has hit hard times and Constance tries to support herself by using her property as a boarding house, open to family and friends as paying guests. As the season is nearing its end, some of her regular guests are taking their evening cocktails. Rose Griggs (Lucy Akhurst) keeps trying to get her husband General Griggs (Tom Mannion) to admire her new dress. The General could not care less about the dress. After endless years of suffering, he longs for a separation from his wife and the chance to finally start a new life. Frederick Ellis (Sam Coulson) is engaged to be married to Sophie Tuckerman (Madeleine Millar), who was adopted by Constance (Hilary Mclean) and brought over from France during the war. She helps Constance run the boarding house, together with stereotypical African-American servant Leon (Salim Sai). Sophie does not love Frederick but sees marriage as an acceptable way out of her dead-end existence, much to Constance’s horror who considers love the fundament of all marriage although there is little in the play that would prove her point.
Frederick’s controlling mother Carrie (Gretchen Egolf) is kept in check by sharp and witty Mrs. Mary Ellis (Susan Porrett), the matriarch of the Ellis family. Edward Crossman (Mark Aiken) who has been in (unrequited) love with Constance for years is also one of the regulars. Constance is anxious over the impending arrival of Nina (Madalena Alberto) and Nick Denery (Mark Healy). Nick was the love of her life, before he went away to become an artist in New York. When Nick arrives with his glamorous wife and clichéd German maid Hilda (Leonie Schliesing), he proves to be a pompous egotist and a serial philanderer who cannot even remember the name of his alleged best friend.
Influenced by Chekhov, the play broaches the issue of middle-aged regrets – making the wrong choices and wishing one’s life away as well as the inability to make necessary changes. Anthony Biggs’ production features some outstanding performances. Susan Porrett as Mrs Mary Ellis brings badly needed humour and wisdom to the play, stealing the scene whenever her character takes the stage.
Madeleine Millar gives a fine performance as the pragmatic Sophie who still feels alien in the small southern town, surrounded by xenophobic, gossiping neighbours. Madalena Alberto brings quiet intensity to her charming character who is well aware of her husband’s flaws, yet cannot live without him. Mark Aiken convinces as a failed man who does not see any future for himself.
The stage design by Gregor Donnelly reflects the former grandeur of the place, now fallen to ruin – the walls are held in earth colours with peeling wallpaper yet the furniture has style.
Reviewed by Carolin Kopplin
Photo: Scott Rylander
THE AUTUMN GARDEN is playing at the Jermyn Street Theatre until 29th October 2016