The Production Company
24 November 2011
The Playhouse, the Arts Centre
to 4 December
The cult fascination with Big and Little Edie Beale doesn't resonate as it does in the US, but it doesn't leave this pair any less fascinating. The Production Company present the Australian premier of the 2007 Tony-winning musical and with Pamela Rabe and Nancye Hayes cast, expectations were high.
The recluse and impoverished Beales were revealed in a 1975 documentary about the mother and daughter living in their filthy East Hampton mansion with raccoons, 50-plus cats, a metre high pile of empty cat food tins and endless fleas. Being the aunt and cousin of Jackie Kennedy-Onassis added to their notoriety and cousin Jackie soon paid for the cleaning of her relatives' house.
The original documentary is still uncomfortably irresistible in its welcomed exploitation, so the decision to re-tell it as a musical could be odd. Why re-tell a story that has already been told perfectly? But such eccentricity and dark sadness must be shared and Grey Gardens creates complexity by including a first act. Set 1941, Act 1 is a fictional afternoon leading up to Little Edie's (Liz Stiles) engagement party to Joe Kennedy (Alex Rathgeber where, cousin Jackie (Ariel Kaplan) runs about, Edie's daddy shows his colours and Big Edie (Rabe) sings and decides her daughter's fate.
For all the genuine affection of Act 1, its ending is played from the beginning, leaving little to draw the audience beyond the veneer of their world. As it's known that Joe died in WW2, that Jackie nabs his little brother and how the Edie's end up, this act could filled with unfulfilled hope or be so dark that every note is a cruel stab at Act 2.
But it matters little, as Act 2 is what everyone wants to see. Taken directly from the documentary, Big (now Hayes) and Little (now Rabe) are as they will always be remembered. The music is forgettable, but their songs allow the subtext of the documentary to literally sing.
Hayes and Rabe are two of the best around and they surpass all expectations as the Edies bicker and fight for attention and try to find love in their bitterness and regret. It's easy to laugh at the quirks of old-lady eccentricity, but their story isn't easy to laugh with, as it's too close for anyone with parent problems or aging issues or a belief that two cats isn't enough. It's the honesty that Rabe and Hayes find that makes their Edies their own and so much more than remembered images from a tv screen.
With tiny budgets and short rehearsals, The Production Company always create something so much more than expected. Grey Gardens doesn't always grasp the tone and cultural impact of this story, but it's still a great night out and you'll not see better than Hayes and Rabe.
This review originally appeared on AussieTheatre.com
Photo by Jeff Busby