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The Autumn Garden
"I live in a room. I go to work and I play a game called getting through the day while you wait for the night." — Ned
The Autumn Garden
Mrs Griggs (Lucy Akhurst) and Frederick Ellis (Sam Coulson) (Photo: Scott Rylander)
Lillian Hellman said that The Autumn Garden was her favourite play. After two very successful productions in the West End of The Children's Hour and the better known The Little Foxes, this is the first showing in London for The Autumn Garden since it was written in 1951. It is not surprising that with a cast of 12 and a 3 hour running time that producers haven't rushed to put it on.

Somehow the tension that we are used to in the strangulated passion of Tennessee Williams'South is not there in Lillian Hellman's play about three generations of family and friends on the Bay of Mexico, which I remember having sea water as warm and as non refreshing as bathing in soup. It is more tedium and disappointment as expectations are repeatedly not met. One character says, "Lonely people in talking to each other can make each other lonely."

Staying in Constance Tuckerman's (Hilary Maclean) boarding house, there is the intensely annoying Mrs Griggs (Lucy Akhurst) and it takes some time before I was able to discern that her very quiet husband was Tom Mannion's stolid General Griggs. Sophie Tuckerman is Constance's young niece, a refugee who has been rescued from war ridden France. She helps in the hotel but is engaged to Frederick Ellis (Sam Coulson).

Susan Porrett's Mrs Mary Ellis is a superbly outspoken grandmother with candid powers of insight and observation. Her scenes with her grandson's fiancee Sophie are witty and interesting. Mr and Mrs Nick Denery come to stay with Constance. Nick Denery (Mark Healy) is an artist, a portrait painter and an alcoholic and has come back to paint Constance as an older version of one of his earlier portraits. Nick and Constance were once engaged. Nina Denery his rich and long suffering wife (Madalena Alberto) is unsurprisingly, unhappily married but whose cheque book gets Nick out of all kinds of scrapes.

Frederick is hoping to nail a deal as an agent to a young successful writer but the sub text is a homoerotic one. Ned Crossman (Mark Aiken) once courted Constance but now has little interest in anything except a bottle of whisky. Gretchen Egolf is attractive as Frederick's sympathetic mother Carrie Ellis. Salim Sai is Leon the black manservant.

There isn't much joy in Lillian Hellman's long-feeling play, more like Chekhovian ennui and despair than American optimism but there are scenes of compelling realism. One is of the drunken Mr Denery collapsing in Sophie's temporary bed in the sitting room leaving her with no where to go. Are we shocked at the financial exploitation of this situation? Maybe.

We are told that Lillian Hellman grew up with some bizarre and eccentric relatives who are thinly disguised in her writing. Were I related to Hellman, I don't think I would want to recognise myself in her writing. The performances are believable and Anthony Biggs' direction is faultless. Gregor Donnelly's frocks are period and special. We can rely on Jermyn Street Theatre to give us fine productions of interesting theatrical rarities.

For James Moore's review of the Shaw Festival production in 2005 go here.

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The Autumn Garden
Written by Lillian Hellman
Directed by Anthony Biggs

With: Mark Aiken, Lucy Akhurst, Madalena Alberto, Sam Coulson, Gretchen Egolf, Mark Healy, Hilary Maclean, Tom Mannion, Madeleine Millar, Susan Porrett, Salim Sai, Leonie Schliesing
Designed by Gregor Donnelly
Sound Design: Tania Holland Williams
Lighting Design: Tim Mascall
Composer: Luke Bateman
Running time: Three hours with an interval
Box Office: 020 7287 2875
Booking to 29th October 2016
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 7th October 2016 performance at Jermyn Street Theatre, 16B Jermyn Street, London SW1Y 6ST (Tube: Piccadilly Circus)
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