IN the 1970s a documentary was made depicting the lives of two American women. What made it remarkable was that these women – Edith and Little Edie Bouvier Beale – had at one time been American royalty.
They were filmed in their rambling enormous home in the Hamptons surrounded by a multitude of cats and racoons where they lived in poverty and squalor.
Their story was subsequently made into a musical – Grey Gardens – a version of which is currently playing at the Southwark Playhouse.
It stars Jenna Russell and Sheila Hancock as the two women, in what must be a dream casting for producer Danielle Tarento and director Thom Southerland.
The musical is split into two distinct halves – the first is an imagined set up in which we see Edith, a woman who dreamed of being an opera singer, playing to the gallery as she tries to organise and take over Little Edie’s engagement party. Her meddling results in her daughter’s intended – Joseph Kennedy – skipping town.
Little Edie, distraught at what has happened, takes herself off to New York to escape the destructive relationship she clearly has with her mother.
In the second half, some 30 years later, their fortunes have changed dramatically. Gone is the wealth and the glamour. Instead they are living in poverty and Little Edie appears to be in a somewhat fragile mental state - though the reason for this is never fully explained.
Nonetheless the bond between them is still strong. And while they bicker and snipe at one another there is also much laughter, song and dance.
It is a fascinating story and it is beautifully played out by a strong cast led by Hancock and Russell and supported by Rachel Anne Rayham as Little Edie in the first half and Aaron Sidwell as Joseph Kennedy.
And what a treat to see Hancock as Edith. She is mostly on stage during the second half but when she’s on she really lights it up.
However, for me the night belongs to Russell in what is quite an extraordinary performance. She is on stage practically the entire time, playing Edith in the first half and Little Edie in the second. Her vocal range is astonishing and beautiful and she is an utter joy to watch.
Although their story is somewhat sad the musical has some very funny moments and the music is fantastic.
And to see two brilliant actresses illuminate the intimate setting of the Southwark Playhouse is wonderful.
Grey Gardens is on at the Southwark Playhouse, Newington Causeway until Saturday, February 6. Tickets cost £25. Visit www.southwarkplayhouse.co.uk or call the box office on 020 7407 0234.