John Hyatt, who directs The Chalk Garden for New Theatre Productions as part of the Festival of Chichester this year, is privileged to carry with him memories of the play’s first London showing.
“I saw the original with Dame Edith and Dame Peggy in 1956 at the Haymarket in London,” John recalls. “It was the British premiere. Apparently the British producers didn’t care for the play so they put on the world premiere in the States. It went so well out there that they decided they missed a trick and so they brought it to London where it was the hit of the season.I just grabbed the chance to see the great dames, and they were absolutely superb, and the play was wonderful too. I can still after all these years hear Dame Edith coming out with the classic one-liners. It’s quite astonishing. She was absolutely indelible!”
New Theatre Productions’ staging of the play runs as part of their traditional summer double bill at the Pergola Theatre in West Dean Gardens until Saturday July 9, running in repertoire with Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
“It’s really about a woman who has this estate in Sussex and she is trying to grow the most unsuitable plants in the chalk soil in parallel to trying to look after her granddaughter and she really doesn’t how to do either. She doesn’t have the green fingers for the garden or the whatever coloured fingers you need to bring up a child. She is making a wreck of absolutely everything and decides to hire a governess. The governess manages to make the child bloom and also the garden bloom, but at considerable expense to herself… I would say it is a drama. There are some laughs and some wonderful lines. It’s neither pure drama, nor pure comedy. I would say that it is what is loosely termed a play! And it really is absolutely splendid. The Americans call it a psychological chamber piece. I am not entirely sure what they mean by that!
“We have done it twice before at West Dean. The last time was 17 years ago, and the first time we did it, I am afraid a lot of them have now gone to the great garden in the sky. That would have been in the early 80s, I should think.
“But this is the first time I have directed it. They were very keen to do it, and I said ‘But we have done it before!’ But obviously that is no reason not to do it again. It is a lovely piece with some lovely parts, and we have managed to cast it very nicely.
“Enid Bagnold’s first big success was writing National Velvet which was the film that brought Elizabeth Taylor into prominence. She wrote The Chalk Garden and then the next plays she wrote just bombed. They just ran for a week…Another play she wrote was Lottie Dundas which I actually appeared in. I did it once in weekly rep, but whenever I mention it now, people just stare at me blankly!”
Performances start at 7.45pm. Picnics welcome.
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