The Chalk Garden – July 2008


By Enid Bagnold

Directed by Michael Grandage

Venue: Donmar Theatre

Date: Thursday 10th July 2008

Wow. Steve and I had seen this play before, but I had very little memory of it, as it hadn’t made much of an impression on me at the time. Today’s production was the complete opposite. Totally memorable, with magnificent performances and excellent writing.

The story is relatively simple. Mrs St Maugham advertises for a governess for her grand-daughter, and gets more than she bargained for. Of the four applicants invited for an interview, only one stays long enough to meet her prospective employer, and she seems very unqualified to take the post. The grand-daughter in question, Laurel, is one of those too-precocious-for her-own-good types, with lots of stories about how dreadful her life has been, all told in a causal, off-hand manner. There’s a manservant, Maitland, who appears to be a nervous wreck, and an elderly man who is looked after by a nurse. We never see this man, but he appears to have a strong influence in the household – he was the butler for many years – and the nurse occasionally comes down to pass on messages. Olivia, Mrs St Maugham’s daughter and Laurel’s mother, also makes an appearance or two, as she now wants to give Laurel a home with her and her new husband. She’s expecting another baby, and she clearly wants to get the family back together again.

Miss Madrigal, the one remaining applicant, seems to have some understanding of Laurel, but is reluctant to stay. She’s put off mainly by her own circumstances and is only persuaded to take the job through Olivia’s intervention. Miss Madrigal is also concerned about the garden. It’s a chalk garden, and the butler has been directing operations so badly that he’s trying to grow all sorts of plants, such as rhododendrons, that hate chalk soil. The analogy between the garden plants and Laurel is obvious, especially with a name like that. Within two months, at the start of the next scene, Miss Madrigal has restored order to both the house and the garden. Laurel is behaving herself – she hasn’t set fire to anything for a long time – and the garden is being licked into shape. The old butler isn’t happy at all, but being stuck in his room, he can’t do anything about it. The nurse does glare at Miss Madrigal when she comes down, but that doesn’t trouble her in the least.

Things change when an old friend of the family comes to visit. He’s a judge, and it turns out he presided over the one trial Miss Madrigal has attended – her own. She was a young girl, accused of murdering her younger step-sister, and her habit of telling lies to get attention backfired when nobody would believe her story at the trial. Now she’s naturally distressed to see the judge again, and convinced he’s rumbled her, she blurts out enough of the truth to jog his memory into remembering her fully.

With part of the truth out, there are ructions in the house. Olivia turns up to take Laurel away, and Miss Madrigal supports this. Mrs St Maugham wants to keep Laurel and send Miss Madrigal packing, but once Laurel has left with her mother, she finds the prospect of an empty house too frightening, and grudgingly comes to accept Miss Madrigal’s offer of companionship. The butler chap has died, just at the right moment, so Miss Madrigal can reign supreme in the chalk garden. The play ends with the two women beginning their edgy relationship, one that we know they’ll both benefit from, despite Miss Madrigal refusing to tell the other woman, and us, what we all want to know – did she do it?

Having said this was a simple story, I find I’ve taken a full page to give only a rough précis of the plot. Apart from the humour, of which there was a great deal, the enjoyment lay in teasing out the subtle clues about Miss Madrigal and her background. It became clear she’d been away from society for a long while – she didn’t have references, for example – and her ability to understand and relate to Laurel without joining in her games was a big clue. She wanted to help the child as much as she could, so she wouldn’t end up making the same mistakes as she had, the ones that led to her spending many long years in prison. Her knowledge of gardening was obviously learned there, and there’s one lovely scene where Miss Madrigal speaks out with more passion than usual for her, about taking care of the garden and the plants. It’s moving and very funny, and I must get the text as I can’t remember a word of it. Penelope Wilton played Miss Madrigal, and I suspect I’ll not see better this lifetime.

Margaret Tyzack as Mrs St Maugham will be hard to top as well. She got to perfection the scattiness and hauteur of the character – totally the wrong person to bring Laurel up. Some of her lines were incredibly funny, and impeccably delivered. The others in the cast were also very good, as I would expect from a Donmar production.

We were reminded both of Terence Rattigan and Ibsen in the style of the piece, with its gentle observation and symbolism drawn from nature. I’d certainly go to see this play again, though I won’t expect it to be of this standard.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at

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