Review: The Chalk Garden, by Enid Bagnold, at Chichester Festival Theatre

The Chalk Garden at CFT Photo Catherine Ashmore
The Chalk Garden at CFT Photo Catherine Ashmore

When The Chalk Garden premiered on Broadway in 1955, the Sussex soil that gave title to Bagnold’s vignette of rural life was as unyielding as it was barren.

Today, the landscape delivers arguably some of the best sparking wine on the supermarket shelves - delicate, subtle, with some sharp citrus undertones.

The play has matured into a similarly wonderful vintage.

This is Sussex’s year. First a revival of the county’s ancient dukedom, handed to young Prince Harry and his bride. Now, a similar rediscovery of this hallmark county play - inspired by Bagnold’s own garden near Brighton.

Unlike Chichester’s first major piece of the season - Coward’s Present Laughter - which also relied on exquisite dialogue exploiting social divides and etiquette, The Chalk Garden is altogether a more understated and majestic interpretation.

No doubt, the presence of audience favourite Penelope Keith as eccentric, aristocratic Mrs St Maugham gives the production the natural gravitas it needs to propel it at a slower speed.

Oliver Ford Davies as a visiting Judge, always a joy with his beautifully rounded and fruity delivery, adds to that sense of calm.

While Amanda Root divines with simple perfection the complex role of Miss Madrigal - a governess drawn to Mrs St Maugham’s Sussex country home to oversee granddaughter Laurel (Emma Curtis) who has developed the disquieting habit of starting fires indoors in places other than the grate.

Designer Simon Higlett’s detailed portrait of the drawing room and garden is a masterpiece in itself - deserving of the ticket price.

But that lavish investment in quality permeates every sentence.

For Miss Keith, who has been building to this role through countless classic sitcoms from The Good Life to To The Manor Born, resists any temptation to overplay her hand. She commands the stage with a maturing grace, a warmth and an audience of well-wishers. She sparkles like a diamond cut a generation before and newly reset.

This is not merely the story of a delinquent teenager and a grandmother who cannot grow a single plant in the garden.

Nor is it simply a superb reminder of the power of newspaper advertising which brings a deluge of applications for the role of governess in the opening scene.

It’s more too than a mystery surrounding the origins of Miss Madrigal.

At its heart, it is about the challenges and the trials that every individual faces on their journey through life. How they learn from them. How they mask them. How, finally, they prevail.

An adjective often applied to Sussex is ‘sleepy’. There is a danger in the first half that this sets the pace. But it has its purpose, defining the characters in a way that ensures there is a real engagement between them and watcher as the final act moves graciously and with those notes of citrus undertone to its conclusion.