Culture: Play horribly please, children

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"On Wednesday night a wonder happened," wrote the theatre critic Kenneth Tynan (pictured) in 1956. "The West End theatre justified its existence."

He was referring to a production of The Chalk Garden, Edith Bagnold's comedy about an eccentric group of middle-aged women and their relationship with a troubled teen girl. Tynan was particularly impressed because The Chalk Garden appeared at a time when the "well-made play", that mainstay of the West End in the first half of the last century, had more or less run out of steam; a few weeks later, Look Back in Anger debuted at the Royal Court and a new theatrical era dawned in which the sophisticated, somewhat artificial style of Somerset Maugham, Noel Coward and Terence Rattigan fell out of favour. "But at least it went out with a flourish," wrote Tynan, "its banners resplendent in the last rays of the sun."

Yet, watching the recent successful revival of The Chalk Garden at the Donmar Warehouse, it seemed less like the last gasp of a dying era than a refreshing alternative to the current crop of new plays. I worked as a drama critic for five years and while many of the well-made plays I sat through were terrible, some were among the best things I saw. I eventually concluded that the dramatists who followed in John Osborne's footsteps, determined to do away with stuffy pre-war conventions, threw the baby out with the bathwater.

One of the reasons Tynan disliked well-made plays so much is that they generally featured upper-middle-class people and Tynan was a life-long socialist. This may also account for why he reacted so well to The Chalk Garden, which offers a nuanced portrait of the pre-war ruling class. The central character is a fearsome matriarch of a military family who has taken custody of her wayward granddaughter after the girl and her mother have fallen out. She is witty and charming, but it becomes clear that the reason she is so attached to the child is that she wants to create a duplicate of herself, not that she genuinely loves her.

Not only is The Chalk Garden extremely funny, it also points to one of the causes of the decline of Britain's pre-war social elite: its laissez-faire attitude towards raising children. The teenage girl at the heart of the play is allowed to run amuck when what she needs is a structured environment. What is so attractive about the upper-middle-class types depicted in the play – that beneath their polished exterior they are often wild and savage – will ultimately prove their undoing.

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