The Chalk Garden, Donmar Warehouse, London

A period piece in full bloom
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The Independent Culture

The Chalk Garden had its English premiere in April 1956, just a month before Look Back in Anger lobbed a landmine at the theatre of well-heeled gentility. So it's intriguing to note that Kenneth Tynan, a critic not disposed to warm to plays set in Sussex manor houses, hailed Enid Bagnold's play as a glorious final flourish by the old brigade – a miraculous justification of the West End in the sunset of its decline. He declared that The Chalk Garden "may well be the finest artificial comedy to have flowed from an English (as opposed to an Irish) pen since the death of Congreve".

But his emphasis on the play's exotic hothouse qualities does not do justice to the constant, delightful surprise of the play's shifting tones, and the variety of ways in which it holds an audience's interest. Cecil Beaton, who provided the designs for the world premiere in New York (the piece initially rejected as too mad by London management), said that it was "as whimsical as Sir James Barrie, as poetic as Giraudoux, sometimes as zany as the Marx Brothers, yet with all the elements of a detective story". And even that complimentary catalogue fails to mention the vital fact that the play is intensely moving in its shrewd, sympathetic treatment of the hard-won wisdom born of loneliness and suffering, and of the emotional battleground between mothers and daughters.

Capturing all these qualities and more, Michael Grandage's superlative revival at the Donmar is a masterpiece of mood-control as it pulls you into the volatile, moment-by-moment life of the drama. Bagnold focuses on a dysfunctional upper-middle-class family presided over by the elderly, eccentric Mrs St Maugham (Margaret Tyzack). Disapproving of her widowed daughter's remarriage, she has taken custody of her alarming 16-year-old granddaughter Laurel (Felicity Jones), who specialises in fantasising and pyromania.

They are cared for by a frustrated but kindly manservant (Jamie Glover), whose will was broken during the prison sentence he served for conscientious objection, but they are controlled by the imperious unseen former butler who, while dying in an upstairs bedroom, continues to issue directives and impose standards that are long past their sell-by date. The play charts the effect on this household of the mysterious Miss Madrigal (Penelope Wilton), the middle-aged woman engaged by the grandmother as a companion to Laurel. Madrigal is wary with people, but passionate about plants, and soon the unfavourably chalky earth of the garden – Bagnold's sensitively handled metaphor for the lack of love in the family – is showing signs of growth. The gradually revealed problem, though, is that Madrigal's work towards a more fruitful future is motivated – and may be compromised – by the dark secret of her past.

A play about the belated passing of an era, The Chalk Garden has meaty female roles for three generations of actor. Wilton is beyond praise as Madrigal – her body language tense as though she were a time-bomb trying not to go off, her eyes burning with bleak insight. The calm, watchful wit of her approach to Laurel conveys, with superb understatement, the extent to which Madrigal sees her past self in this unruly, mendacious teenager. The beautiful, sprite-like Jones brilliantly signals the emotional need underlying Laurel's cultivation of a hypnotic, hazardous allure, and the fact that she's crying out for the boundaries that she's never been given. And Tyzack is in majestic form as the matriarch. From her opening salvo ("You can't fit false teeth to a woman of character"), she paces to comic perfection the batty, bitchy, extravagantly mandarin rhythms of Bagnold's writing. She's a magnificent blend of tactless patrician confidence and manipulative insecurity, affording you sudden glimpses of the frightened old woman who's messed up in matters of the heart.

The first-night audience persisted in clapping until the cast returned for an extra bow, whereupon it rose in one of the most spontaneous and justified standing ovations that I have ever witnessed.

To 2 August (0870 060 6624)