A journal of turn-of-the-century theatre

Issue 6 - Summer 2013

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The Orange Tree Season, London,
reviewed by John McRae

The Stepmother by Githa Sowerby
The Man Who Pays the Piper by G B Stern
The Breadwinner by W Somerset Maugham (Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond)
Rutherford and Son by Githa Sowerby (Rose Theatre, Kingston)

When Helen Leblique was working as a trainee director at the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond, England, in the 2006-2007 season, the theatre’s resident director Sam Walters gave her the time and space to research ‘forgotten’ plays by women from the early twentieth century. This gave rise to a successful Female Playwrights season the following year. Now two genuine masterpieces have emerged, and these have dominated the season at the glorious 250 seat theatre, London’s only genuine theatre-in-the-round, this spring.

The rediscovered gems are The Stepmother by Githa Sowerby (1876 -1970), first staged in London in 1924, and The Man Who Pays the Piper by G B Stern (1890-1973), first staged in 1931.

Coincidentally, Sowerby’s recognised masterpiece Rutherford and Son, first staged with great success in London and New York in 1912, and later heralded by the National Theatre as “one of the top 100 plays of the twentieth century” was given a much-trumpeted revival under the direction of Jonathan Miller by the Halifax-based company Northern Broadsides. This production toured the country and finally made it to the West End in the new St James Theatre.

The Orange Tree season concluded with one of Somerset Maugham’s last plays, The Breadwinner, a big hit when it was staged in London in 1930 with a young Peggy Ashcroft and Jack Hawkins in the cast.

It has to be said that the starry revival of Rutherford and Son came across as much more of a historical curiosity of the “grim up north” kind than the three later plays, which, being played in repertory one after the other, showed echoes and resonances that made them feel quite stunningly modern.

Both of the ‘unknown’ plays feature a stepmother role, both depend on the hard work of a talented woman in the fashion industry who becomes the breadwinner of the extended families involved. Both involve the new balance of female and male roles as breadwinners after the First World War, and as such offer wonderful roles for their actresses.

If the word ‘stepmother’ links the first two plays of the season, it is the word ‘breadwinner’ that links them to the third: the thematic connections are stunning. Here a stockbroker is “hammered” on the Stock Exchange and loses all his money. However, he declines all offers of rescue, chucks it all in and leaves wife, family and suburban Golders Green to strike off on his own (with a little money he has salted away, of course). This is a less well-known Maugham piece than many, but it feels fresh-minted, with its concerns with money, social class, family, and City corruption all as bang up to date as any social play by Caryl Churchill.

All three plays are more laboriously constructed than present fashion would dictate, but that is really the only thing that dates them. The Maugham has a neat device of continuity, picking up each scene from the last lines of the previous one, such that the action flows uninterrupted – the director could easily have dispensed with one of the two intervals, therefore. Naturally enough, with the playwright at the height of his powers and with over twenty plays under his belt, it is the most masterfully constructed and immediately crowd-pleasing of the three. But even it is unusual in its topicality: words like feminism, empowerment, financial crisis and bail-out are never actually used – but that is what all three plays are about, and the staging of them together in a season is genius of theatrical planning.

The Stepmother was the first of the season, opening, by coincidence, in the same week as Northern Broadsides version of the author’s more famous, quasi-Ibsenite drama. The critics were vociferous in their praise and in their astonishment that such a fine play had not been revived since its one-off performance in 1924.

Where Rutherford and Son is about a male-dominated family of factory owners (echoes of the author’s own life) and the effective banishment of the daughter, The Stepmother is first and foremost about money, and the rights and wrongs of women’s position in society. As Michael Billington observed in an astute review in the Guardian, “It shows Sowerby to have been a pioneering and perceptive observer of the way women's legal rights were subverted by social practice.”

In Sam Walters’ delightful production, the casting was perfect. The useless menfolk (again an autobiographical note) are shown to be using the women for financial purposes – simply reflecting the dominant male role society expected. But the bright young heiress, Lois, is far and away the strongest character, the backbone of the family she has married into (thus becoming the stepmother of the title). And it is shocking when her useless husband Eustace lays claim to her money: “We’re married people: what’s yours is mine.”

In the wonderfully intimate space of the Orange Tree, Katy Mills’ set design opened up lots of doors and took the audience right inside the rooms which would originally have been behind a proscenium arch. The intimacy, and the absolutely splendid performances, made the slightly laboured structure work astonishingly well. The wonderful role of the heroine, Lois, aging beautifully from the young governess in 1911 to the hard-working fashion designer in 1921, allowed Kate McGuinness to explore a delightful range of emotions from ingenuousness to industry, to splendid affirmation. Christopher Ravenscroft as the hapless Eustace who has married her for her inheritance and then proceeded to squander it, is excellent in the role of the man everyone in the audience would simply like to slap.

The characterisations are a tad black and white, but the family affections, between stepmother and step-daughters, were beautifully realised. While The Stepmother is no great undiscovered masterpiece, it holds its own very well indeed and deserves to be more widely recovered into the repertoire of plays of the 1920s.

Echoes and resonances of The Stepmother in The Man Who Pays the Piper were underscored by some shared casting, most notably the excellent Christopher Ravenscroft as the anxious father. But the play stands or falls with its leading lady, and in Deirdre Mullins it is no exaggeration to say we witnessed a star breakthrough performance – she has the immense gift of calm, almost serenity, on stage, while all about her are losing the plot, making strange matches, or dancing their lives away in the manner of the Bright Young Things.

Again, the world of fashion is the professional escape route for the heroine, Darryll Fairley. And again the men are not as helpful as they might be, but as the play progresses Simon Harrison as Darryl’s boyfriend is given the opportunity to grow into a much more modern man than anyone had the right to expect. Again the time-frame of the play covers a decade or more, from 1913, when Darryl is reprimanded by her father for keeping late hours, through 1926 and references to the current hit show No No Nanette, and on to the unexpected, but very satisfying climax in 1930.

This is a good strong play, with a fabulous role for its leading lady. It needs a lot of set changes, which the cast executed with aplomb: Helen Leblique continues the Orange Tree’s high standards of directing, and makes the occasionally unwieldy elements cohere, despite the play’s rather inordinate length. This is a major rediscovery, and I can imagine lots of actresses wanting to play the lead, perhaps with a few slight bits of editing to help the play flow a little more evenly.

The Breadwinner is not now among Somerset Maugham’s more familiar works, but, especially set in this spectacularly timely season, it has a ring of modernity of subject-matter that belies its ‘anyone for tennis’ setting and characters.

What is most striking is how much Maugham appears to dislike, indeed despise, most of his characters. The young set, all tennis whites and earnest self-righteousness, are courageously played to the hilt as maddeningly irritating, so much so that when the paterfamilias is asked in the second act what he thinks of them his reply, “boring,” elicits cheers and applause from the audience.

Again the play stands or falls with its leading character, and Ian Targett as the failed stockbroker, Charles Battle, nails it superbly. He is in fact, although nominally the villain of the piece, the only character who emerges with any real sympathy – both the writing and the direction play with audience sympathy all the way through, and the writing only falters in the very last scene, where the female characters, one after the other, try to seduce Charles into not running away from his responsibilities. Isla Carter as the wife of Charles’s best friend nearly steals the whole show with a superbly vamped seduction scene, worthy of Coward (Private Lives is from the same year.)

Maugham slips in a few nods and winks to female desires for freedom and emancipation as contrasted with male enslavement to the breadwinner role, and in all three plays there is the sad undertow of the imbalance in numbers between men and women as part of the constantly overhanging legacy of the Great War. And remarkably, all three plays hint at “another war” to come. But what remains in the mind here is the image of the stockbroker, in top hat and tails, almost the perfect emblem of old-fashioned male-dominated capitalism, calmly stomping on the top hat (if one can stomp calmly) in order to achieve his freedom.

It was a brave and adventurous choice of plays to make a season, and the Orange Tree are to be complimented on not hammering away at any ‘women’s plays’ agenda: these are excellent plays regardless of whether they were written by women or men. It is their continuing relevance and power that make them work. And very pleasing to see that audiences flocked to all three.

Rutherford and Son emerges from the contrast with the Orange Tree season with its reputation intact, even though it feels closer to Ibsen, and perhaps Galsworthy, than the Sowerby and Stern revivals do.

When it was played at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester in 2005, Maurice Roeves played the paterfamilias, John Rutherford, with pathos and self-awareness; Barrie Rutter here plays him less sympathetically, full of bluster, the traditional domineering father who has given up on his sons, and drives away his daughter. Again in Manchester, Maxine Peake played the daughter sympathetically, where in this revival Sara Poyzer plays up the anguish and desolation of a character without hope. A lot of the playing is strident, and despite Blake Morrison’s much-vaunted tweaking of the text, a lot of the play still seems pretty laborious and, indeed, caricatured.

There is a fine twist in the plot at the end to send the audience way discussing the issues. And when we realise that in 1912, only six years after the death of Ibsen, it was a woman who wrote this play (although she was of course only credited as K. G. Sowerby) the triumph is all the sweeter. Gender, class, the morals of industrialists…. the themes are still as valid and the arguments as vivid a century on.

Stern, always known as Peter, was a friend of Maugham’s and there is a nice anecdote in the programme for The Breadwinner about her staying with him in his villa on Cap Ferrat where “her entertaining conversation and general jolliness were considered great assets, even though Maugham was dismayed by her greed at the table and not over-keen, aesthetically, on her habit of sunbathing naked.”

These playwrights were all pushing against the darkness, fully aware of the complexity of the issues they were raising. Maugham knew how to please his audience, and enjoyed huge commercial success, whereas Sowerby and Stern hardly wrote any more for the theatre. All the more pleasing then, that these revivals show that their plays can stand successfully beside the work of an acknowledged master, and take their deserved place in the pantheon of English drama.

Works Cited and Consulted:

Gale, Maggie B. and G. Bush-Bailey, eds., Plays and Performance Texts by Women 1880-1930: An Anthology of Plays by British and  American Women from the Modernist Period. Manchester: Manchester UP, 2012. Print.

Hastings, Selina, The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham. London: John Murray, 2010. Print.

Riley, Patricia, Looking for Githa. Newcastle upon Tyne: New Writing North, 2009. Print.