The Autumn Garden was written by Lillian Hellman and first staged in 1951, and you can certainly tell. Set in the Deep South in 1949, the play follows a group of middle-aged adults over the course of two days, and explores the themes of setbacks, disappointments, and expectations that remain unmet. We spend almost three hours listening to the cast of twelve titter around, creating and then reacting to problems that feel meagre and ordinary to a contemporary audience.
The cast is predominantly strong, although besides Rose Griggs (Lucy Akhurst) and Carrie Ellis (Gretchen Egolf), the Southern accents were questionable at best. They seemed to improve over the course of the play, but then perhaps I just grew accustomed to them. Akhurst, along with Susan Porrett as the outspoken Grandmother and matriarch, Mrs Mary Ellis, provided much needed comic relief to an otherwise sleepy and slow-moving plot. French immigrant Sophie Tuckerman, played by Madeleine Millar, provided occasional succinct thoughts on the Americans and their behaviour, and Constance Tuckerman (Hilary Maclean) was motherly and warm as the aunt of Sophie, despite having been forced to open up her home to guests to make ends meet.
The rest of the characters however are wholly unlikeable, and sometimes forgettable. Mark Dealy is loud and uncivilized as the adulterous drunk Nick Denery, but was somewhat amusing and provided excitement in places. General Griggs (Tom Mannion) and Edward Crossman (Mark Aiken) were both largely unmemorable, while the feeble Frederick Ellis (Sam Coulson) was borderline annoying and Salim Sai played an old-fashioned caricature of a black worker, whistling while he pottered around Constance’s home.
Directed by Anthony Biggs and performed against a set designed by Gregor Donnelly – a country house with dilapidated peeling walls of mossy green and brown – the play makes excellent use of the relatively small space of the Jermyn Street Theatre and rarely feels overcrowded despite the quite large cast. The play features failed or mismatched marriages, suffocated under a societal pressure to live happily and avoid causing a scene. This makes for, at times, a rather stale plot that seems to reach no real resolution.
Perhaps, as a young British woman born almost 45 years after this play was debuted on Broadway, I just didn’t understand the nuanced wit of Hellman’s observational writing or the era in which it is set. Or, perhaps it’s a dated text, and should rest back in the decade it emerged from while we celebrate Hellman’s other fantastic works that stand the test of time in ways that this production of The Autumn Garden unfortunately doesn’t match up to.
The Autumn Garden is playing at the Jermyn Street Theatre until 29 October. For more information and tickets, see the Jermyn Street Theatre website.
Photo: Scott Rylander