REVIEW: The Chalk Garden by Enid Bagnold, Chichester Festival Theatre, until June 16

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

Designer Simon Higlett gives us one of his finest sets ever with its detail and faded gentility – the perfect platform for Penelope Keith and Amanda Root to give superlative performances.

12 years ago in Entertaining Angels, also directed by Alan Strachan, Keith was given a garden which grew beautifully. Here, as the autocratic Mrs St Maugham, her garden is chalk; nothing will grow, and yet she keeps on trying, clinging to a world that has gone, to standards that only she now recognises.

It’s a role made for Keith to show us once again just why she is one of the greats of our stage. She creates a complex maddening character and then leaves us with a poignant sense of the loneliness at her heart. Her performance is superb – matched every step of the way by Amanda Root as the woman of mystery who turns up as a potential governess and is forced to reveal her past.

Both are rich characters – and certainly the enduring memories of the night. But however impressive their performances, the audience is still left with the impression that The Chalk Garden is itself a chalk garden.

The third act, after the interval, is strong indeed – and goes a long way towards redeeming the night, certainly in the opportunities it offers Root and Keith.

But there is no escaping the fact that for much of the first two acts, we are left with the impression that we might as well be watching a very barren garden attempt to grow. Enid Bagnold’s play hasn’t fared well with time. After a bright start, the exposition is laboured in the extreme; the subplots involving a pyromaniac granddaughter and a wayward daughter flit between uninteresting and faintly annoying.

The Chalk Garden is a play which clearly demands concentration yet doesn’t feel disposed to earn it. We spend the first two acts wondering why it has been chosen; but maybe in the end, the chance to watch Keith at her best is reason enough.