Monday 18 February 2013

Theatre Review: The Stepmother (Orange Tree)

There’s a decidedly feminist bent to the opening of the 2013 Orange Tree season, which begins with two cross-cast, seldom-seen dramas exploring women’s lot in early 20th century England. First off the blocks is Sam Walters’s deft, intelligent production of Githa Sowerby’s 1924 play The Stepmother – a timely choice given that Northern Broadsides’s take on Sowerby’s best-known play, Rutherford and Son, is currently doing the touring rounds. Formally conventional, with echoes of Granville Barker, Galsworthy and Pinero, Sowerby’s play focuses on Lois, a twentysomething stepmother to two grown-up girls, Monica and Betty, who runs a successful dress-making business. The fly in the ointment for the hard-working Lois is her much-older spouse, Eustace Gaydon, an unmerry widower who married Lois for an inheritance that he’d expected to come to him, the bulk of which he’s now frittered away in shady business deals. The crunch comes when Lois – unaware of her husband’s actions – pledges a whopping £10,000 “settlement” for Monica’s wedding, and the self-justifying and blame-apportioning Eustace is forced to fess up to his dodgy dealings.

The Stepmother genuinely deserves the title of “rediscovery,” for Walters’s production is in fact the professional premiere of Sowerby’s play, which had one private performance in 1924 and hasn’t been staged since. While the piece certainly deserved a better fate than that, it’s not entirely unclear why it’s been neglected: there are occasional lags and flags of interest in the drama, some sketchy characterisation and - after an absolutely superb opening scene in which we see Eustace beginning his campaign of manipulation against the vulnerable, orphaned Lois - the play sometimes struggles to sustain sufficient intensity; a rather English mildness, even a triviality, sometimes settles on the piece. At its best, though, Sowerby’s writing has both bite and insight, and its demonstration that a married woman’s financial security can be entirely undermined by the husband who’s actually controlling the purse-strings certainly resonates. (As does the play’s gentle subversion of the “wicked stepmother” archetype.) In addition, the play connects nicely with previous Orange Tree productions dealing with marriage and inheritance, in particular Susan Glaspell’s Allison’s House, Allan Monkhouse’s Mary Broome, and Pinero’s The Thunderbolt.

A skilful cast also help to fill out some of the gaps. The gorgeous-voiced Christopher Ravenscroft – an actor it’s generally difficult to dislike (see here and here) – slyly subverts his natural charm as the useless, scheming Eustace; never can the assurance “we’re married people – what’s yours is mine” have rung more sinisterly. Julia Watson sketches an indelible portrait of elderly befuddlement as Eustace’s ailing aunt, and Jennifer Higham and Emily Tucker are lovely, lively presences as the daughters. And playing the multi-tasking, manipulated heroine, the radiant, sympathetic Katie McGuinness (formerly Mary Broome) conveys both innocence and tenacity, as Lois slowly realises what another character articulates: that, when it comes to apparent affairs of the heart, in one way or another it’s actually “the money that matters.”

The production runs until 9th March. Further information at the Orange Tree website.

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