|Deirdre Mullins in The Man Who Pays The Piper (Orange Tree)|
Beau in tow, irreverent 18-year-old Daryll Fairley (Deirdre Mullins) tangos home in the early hours after a night on the town, much to the chagrin of her pa Arthur (Christopher Ravenscroft), who’s waiting up to let her in. Daryll, you see, isn’t allowed a latch-key of her own, unlike her older brother. Pointing out the unfairness of this situation, Daryll expresses her desire to be “independent,” an idea which her father disdains. “It’s time you married – a man who can master you,” Arthur proclaims, reminding Daryll that, while she’s under his roof (and receiving an allowance from him), it’s he who gets to make the rules.
The contradictions inherent in this excellent opening scene resonate throughout GB Stern’s 1931 play The Man Who Pays The Piper which explores shifts in gender roles (and their economic underpinnings) in the post-World War I period, its wider social picture emerging through an intimate focus on the Fairley family’s fortunes over almost 20 years. It’s no coincidence that the play chimes beautifully with the previous Orange Tree production The Stepmother (with which it’s partially – and very effectively – cross-cast), as another examination of the way that “money matters” in familial relationships, penned by another insightful (and neglected) woman writer grappling with the changes of her time. As in Githa Sowerby’s play, the focus in The Man Who Pays The Piper is on a female breadwinner, for after her father’s death it’s Daryll who ends up being the head of the Fairley household, taking over the running of a West End dress-making firm and supporting the (ever-growing) family financially. It’s a role that Daryll views with increasing ambivalence, though, as she finds herself in the unfortunate position of echoing her father’s pronouncements about what should and shouldn’t be done in the house.
Less straightforward – and ultimately richer – than The Stepmother, Stern’s play is a fascinatingly conflicted work that never seems to resolve its feelings about its complex and compelling heroine. At the heart of the piece is an exploration of domestic power, and the suggestion that being the economic head of a household has the potential to make a man or a woman become a tyrant - or, perhaps, just someone laying down justifiable boundaries and rules. On the one hand the piece presents Daryll as a completely competent woman: shrewd and intelligent in business, mostly generous to the family’s demands. On the other, it comes close to suggesting that there’s something particularly corrupting or “unnatural” about a female assuming this role, as Daryll struggles with her work/life balance, becomes tetchy and demanding at times, and deems marriage to her ever-patient boyf Rufus (Simon Harrison) to be an impossibility.
Helen Leblique’s fluid and confident production embraces the play’s contradictions. The evening is lengthy (2 hours 45 minutes including interval) but momentum doesn’t flag, primarily because Stern’s writing is so full of surprises and unexpected developments. The play keeps you on your toes, changing mood and tone very swiftly from comedy to crisis. Ironies and incongruities abound. There’s a very surprising remarriage, a blazing row that swerves into a proposal, a wonderful moment of supreme drunken revelry. And Leblique makes even the set changes witty.
A large cast skilfully fleshes out vivid characters. Stuart Fox is hilarious as an unexpected new family member. Emily Tucker is piquant as the good-time-girl flagrantly disobeying her sister’s rules yet dismayed at the prospect of leaving behind her home comforts. As another sister, Jennifer Higham makes herself the epitome of eager-to-please timidity, while Julia Watson, as Mother, is the quintessence of daffiness. And the brilliant Deirdre Mullins captures precisely Daryll’s conflicts as she finds herself both despising and delighting in her position as the family “autocrat.”
The conflicts within the play itself are never more apparent than in a spectacularly confounding final scene which comes up with a wonderfully unusual – yet perfectly workable – solution to a particular dilemma, then backtracks and rejects it, before seeming to backtrack again, ending the piece on a memorable moment of ambiguity. Beautifully brought out in Leblique’s production, the combination of the radical and the reactionary in Stern’s writing makes The Man Who Pays The Piper an absorbing rediscovery, and one guaranteed to provoke a lot of post-show debate.
The production is booking until 13th April. Further information at the Orange Tree website.