Review: The Chalk Garden

By John Nathan, June 20, 2008

Donmar Theatre, London WC2

It was not enough for Enid Bagnold that Hollywood turned her horsey novel National Velvet into the movie that introduced Elizabeth Taylor to the world. She wanted to write a thoroughbred play too. In 1956 she did — The Chalk Garden, in which a mysterious governess saves a girl from a household as sterile as its eponymous garden.

Despite the success of John Gielgud’s original production, it is Michael Grandage’s magnificently acted Donmar revival that will forever rescue this play from the shadow cast by Osborne’s Look Back in Anger, which in opened a month later, eclipsing Bagnold.

The setting is an eccentric upper-class home run by the neurotic manservant Maitland (Jamie Glover), but ruled by Margaret Tyzack’s acid-tongued Mrs St Maugham. Her granddaughter’s new governess is Miss Madrigal (a mesmerising Penelope Wilton), who arrives with no references but knows how to make the barren garden fertile. She also knows what is best for Laurel (dazzlingly played by Felicity Jones), her 12-year-old charge who senses in her guardian a hidden history.

What Grandage’s production so brilliantly highlights are the play’s two indomitable but opposing forces — the implacable wisdom of Wilton’s Madrigal versus the withering wit of Tyzack’s St Maugham. The joust is utterly compelling, the resolution powerfully moving, and this revival a revelation. (Tel: 0870 060 6624)

Last updated: 1:15pm, June 20 2008