The Autumn Garden
Jermyn Street Theatre
7 October 2016
Lillian Hellman considered The Autumn Garden her best play, and it’s true that this drama of domesticity, set in its own small world, makes for a fine evening of drama. Constance Tuckerman runs a boarding house from her family’s once-grand and now rather shabby vacation home. In the summer of 1949, old flame Nick Dennery comes to visit, a man that Constance has never truly gotten over. There are a few borderline affectionate mentions of ‘the war’, but it is the claustrophobically small town with its busybody inhabitants that it the real battlefield.
The play features many recognisable traits of famous American drama – multiple generations, old secrets, a stiflingly hot summer and characters wallowing in their own regrets and self-doubts, pinning their aspirations on the younger characters. Disillusion and disappointment inevitably ensue, as Constance’s 40-something generation try to recapture the joy and potential of their youth.
It is incredibly refreshing to see a play of this ilk where the women are far more than props or prizes to be fought over for drama. The female characters of The Autumn Garden are wonderfully three-dimensional, multi-faceted and likeable and loathable in turns. Constance’s French niece, in particular, starts off an unassuming little thing, before taking a very calculated turn towards the end of the play. Likewise, Nick’s new wife Nina is much, much more than simply Constance’s rival, the woman who ‘won’ the man.
The opening moments suffer a little from slipping accents, and Southern incomprehensibleness, but this is quickly overcome as everyone settles into their parts. However, Tom Mannion fully inhabits the wistful, unfulfilled General Griggs from his first lines, perfectly capturing the essence of a man who has resignedly slumped into middle age and discontent. Mark Aiken as the melancholy Ned Crossman, who has loved Constance unrequitedly for years, also gives a subtle, unfussy performance. Compared to the loud anguish of some of the other characters, Ned’s quiet sadness is doubly effective.
Highlights include Madalena Alberto, exceptional as the acidic, insecure wife of bullish Nick Denery (Mark Healy). Susan Porrett is brilliant as matriarch Mary, whose barbed witticisms escape reproach behind a crafted persona of a dotty old lady, giving way to sharp observations. Elsewhere Gregor Donnelly’s set and costume design truly capture the aesthetic of the era. The uber-girly costumes of the gossipy Rose Griggs are particularly good, from matching hat and gloves to a super frilly nightgown, complete with matching slippers.
The first act sets the audience up nicely – everything is clearly not as it seems, and underneath all the good humour and reminiscing something is deeply wrong. Hellman wastes no time in introducing us to an array of characters, all of whom seem to be hiding something. Clues and hints to the truth are methodically laid out for the audience to discover, as we piece together the history of these people’s lives.
Unfortunately, the second half frustratingly drags. There are ample opportunities for a good ending, but Hellman apparently decided to keep going in an ‘and then, and then, and then’ vein. Admittedly there are a lot of loose ends to wrap up with so many different storylines running through the play, but after a while, it becomes difficult to care. Director Anthony Briggs could probably shave a good fifteen minutes off the running time by coordinating his actors to enter as another exits, cutting down the amount of time the audience spends staring at an empty room. There’s also an awful lot of meaningful staring into the middle distance and pregnant pauses which add little to the drama.
Despite this, there are quality performances on offer and an intriguing plot. The gradual descent of Nick from hero to scoundrel in Constance’s estimations is very well done. This may well be Hellman’s best play, and it’s an excellent work of its time and kind, but a little refinement would not go amiss.
Until 29 October 2016