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The Theatreguide.London Review

The Autumn Garden
Jermyn Street Theatre   Autumn 2016

A less-known work by a not-quite-top-tier writer proves to have too little to it beyond a soap opera air, at least in this well-meaning but never-quite-coming-together production by Anthony Biggs. 

Lillian Hellman (1905-1984) is a high-B-List American playwright, author of solidly realistic domestic melodramas that at their best resonate with larger social or political meanings. 

The Little Foxes and Another Part Of The Forest depict a dysfunctional family as the face of a new cut-throat capitalism displacing the gentility of the American South, while in Watch On The Rhine some apolitical Americans charmed by a German diplomat provide an unforced allegory of the United States' slowness in recognizing the Nazi threat in the 1930s. 

The theme of The Autumn Garden is stasis, the spiritual inertia or character weakness that makes us plan to do things but never actually do them. 

The story carrying this psychological exploration sees a group of people, the hostess and regular visitors to a Southern guest house, each with their own romantic fantasies. 

One middle-aged woman imagines herself a youthful belle, one man returns year after year through never-expressed love for the hostess, a doting mother blinds herself to unwelcome truths about her adult son, and the hostess herself eagerly awaits the return of one of her old beaux. 

Not only will everyone be disappointed at least two marriages and two never-quite-formed love affairs will threaten to break down in the course of the play but nobody will actually do anything about it. A string of determinations to change things or make breaks with old patterns will collapse and things go on very much as before, with no one any happier.

(Notably, the one big exception to both the tendency toward sentimental romanticising and the inability to act is a foreigner uninfected by what Hellman sees as a peculiarly American malaise.) 

But I've just identified the common theme of the several plot lines more clearly than this Jermyn Street production ever does. 

Director Anthony Biggs guides his actors to fully developed (if occasionally near-cartoon) characterisations, and brings out all the dark humour and quiet pathos of their various stories. But they remain separate plot lines with no real connection to each other and no real resonances beyond their specifics thus the inescapable or at least unescaped feel of a soap opera. 

The large cast are all impressive if sometimes seeming to exist on different reality levels. 

At the more near-caricature end Lucy Akhurst makes the ageing belle appropriately irritating while Susan Porrett finds all the wit and wisdom in a generic Clever Old Lady, and leading the more subdued and realistic performances is Tom Mannion as a particularly unhappy husband. 

There may well be more to The Autumn Garden than this production shows, but you will have to fill it in for yourself.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -  The Autumn Garden - Jermyn Street Theatre 2016

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