Monday 22 April 2013

Theatre Review: The Breadwinner (Orange Tree)

Cate Debenham-Taylor in The Breadwinner (Photo: Robert Day)

"Well, I’m dished!" The Orange Tree’s mini-season of plays on the subject of breadwinners and providers concludes with a spry final offering: Auriol Smith’s enjoyable revival of W. Somerset Maugham’s 1930 comedy. There’s been a pleasingly radical streak to each of the early 20th C plays presented in this season, especially in their engagement with issues of gender and economics. Githa Sowerby’s The Stepmother critiqued patriarchal control of the purse-strings by showing the hard-working efforts of its enterprising heroine being systematically undermined by a no-good spouse. And GB Stern’s intriguingly conflicted The Man Who Pays The Piper advanced the proposition that a woman’s ultimate fulfillment might lie in the business world rather than in the domestic sphere. Though consistently lighter in tone than those texts, and much more condensed in its time-frame, Maugham’s play also offers a bracingly oppositional perspective on the way in which “money matters” in familial relationships - and on much else besides. That the play intersects beautifully with the two previous productions in the season isn’t a surprise. But it also proves a neat complement to Matthew Dunster’s creamy revival of Rodney Ackland’s Before The Party, currently at the Almeida and based, of course, on a Maugham short story.

Like Before The Party, The Breadwinner also skewers the shallow, status-obsessed mind-set of its spoilt middle-class protagonists and traces the fallout of one rebellious family member’s flouting of expectations. In this case, it’s the father of the family, one Charles Battle (Ian Targett), who stirs up his Golders Green clan when he announces that, following a serious spot of financial bother, he’s turning his back on the daily grind of the stock-broking world - and leaving the family, to boot. It’s a premise that might be played for hand-wringing melodrama. But as Charles’s wife Margery (Cate Debenham-Taylor) and his self-absorbed teenage kids Patrick (Joseph Radcliffe) and Judy (Nathalie Buscombe) register their objections it’s made clear that they’re more troubled by the possibility of scandal and the fact that Charles’s absence might deprive them of their creature comforts than by much emotional attachment to Daddy Dear.

Maugham can be a slyly subversive writer at the best of times (witness his euthanasia-endorsing The Sacred Flame, revived by Dunster for ETT last year) and in The Breadwinner he inserts a still-relevant critique of matrimony and materialism into an apparently well-behaved drawing-room comedy. Witheringly cynical about marriage, provocative on parent/child perceptions and insightful about the effects of WWI on gender roles and family relationships, the play’s jibes aren’t always subtle but they are well-aimed, and there’s a decidedly serious undertow to the demonstration that conventional family roles and the business world can stifle the spirit. Whether Maugham had been reading his Emerson when composing The Breadwinner I’m not sure but there’s surely a trace of Transcendentalism to the drama’s insistence that the individual must be allowed to develop beyond oppressive social contracts and conventions. In this way, Maugham’s Charles might be viewed as the more genteel English forebear of American Beauty’s Lester Burnham, as he espouses a philosophy of self-reliance and starts telling his loved ones some long-repressed home truths. And seldom can a male protagonist’s desire to abandon his family have been presented more sympathetically than it is here.

Nathalie Buscombe in The Breadwinner (Photo: Robert Day)

Designed with customary precision and economy by Sam Dowson, Smith’s production might benefit from a little tightening: a couple of performances still lack a bit of definition and not all of the lines generate the laughs they should. But the production is entertaining throughout and boasts several spiffing turns. Ian Targett warms up as Charles to give both poignancy and insight to his portrayal of an apparently humourless man’s bid for freedom. As the spoilt son who believes a hardcourt tennis court to be “one of the ordinary necessities of existence” Joseph Radcliffe puffs up with hilarious indignation at his father’s dismissal of him as “boring.” Cate Debenham-Taylor brings wonderfully subtle comic skill to her characterisation of the aesthete wife who’s contemplating extra-marital dalliances but is none-too-keen on the idea of being dumped. The Harriet Walter-esque Isla Carter gets a show-stopping vamp moment. And the appealing Nathalie Buscombe starts archly but softens into sympathy as the only family member to come round to the pater’s point-of-view.

Booking until 18th May. Further information at the Orange Tree website.

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