FringeReview UK 2017
This revival directed by Richard Eyre of The Stepmother at the Chichester Minerva renders two masterly works to Githa Sowerby’s account. Tim Hatley’s design boxes a naturalistic drawing room in Surrey. With Peter Mumford’s deft gas lamp lighting and later soft electric, the scenes recall Gwen John’s desperate genteel interiors. John Leonard’s sound is a discreet period-attuned instrument. Till September 9th.
The centenary production of Githa Sowerby’s Rutherford and Son in 2012-13 directed by Jonathan Miller with Northern Broadsides finally established our loss, showing us why it was hailed as a work of genius, prompting many to ask whatever happened. This masterpiece by a writer close to Ibsen and Shaw – at his best – is even more kin to the work of Harley Granville-Barker: they share inspiration from the older dramatists with a twist of money and gritty bargaining.
How ironic then that this supporter of Sowerby’s turned down her next play A Man and Some Women (1913), praising it but finding some flaw we won’t know till we see it. Not till 1924 did Sowerby re-emerge briefly: just a single performance of The Stepmother before disillusion and financial security cause her to give up. As late as 1970 nearing ninety-four, Sowerby destroyed letters and photographs months before dying embittered.
This revival by Richard Eyre of that last play at the Chichester Minerva renders two masterly works to Sowerby’s account: that rejected play could add a third, the same number of plays as Granville-Barker, similarly self-silenced.
Tim Hatley’s design boxes a naturalistic drawing room in Surrey glowing with a rosewood circular table, onto a conservatory virid with plants. With a wall, alternately a plush bookcase and door dropped in front of it, we’re economically persuaded with minute furniture shuffles of very different surroundings. With Peter Mumford’s deft gas lamp lighting and later soft electric, the scenes recall Gwen John’s desperate genteel interiors. John Leonard’s sound is a discreet period-attuned instrument.
It’s 1911. Ophelia Lovibond’s Lois Relph is a nineteen-year-old orphaned companion to the recently-deceased sister of the widowed Eustace Gaydon, played here with an evil arabesque of hands by Will Keen, whose creepy insinuations and outright brutality leave virtually nothing neutral to pity. Gaydon discovers from Simon Chandler’s gruff Bennett a solicitor who now hates him, that the otherwise destitute Lois has been been left everything, a sum of £30,000 (as Eyre says, multiply by a hundred). Gaydon an incompetent shady businessman financially desperate makes familiar then (as we discover) marital overtures to Lois and thus somehow persuades her only afterwards that her inheritance should be his.
We’re treated to the humane aunt Charlotte where Joanna David’s performance glows with the lamps, distinct and revivified here as if from another time. Gaydon’s young daughters are brought in and out. Ultimately they’re the hook.
At this point you might wonder if the enormity of this theft would be the mainspring. It isn’t. 1921 discovers Lois now a successful haut couture businesswoman virtually keeping the family. She crisply orders the adult daughters not to interfere with their dresses. The disparity’s startling. Lois is now twenty-nine and her transformation’s unrecognizable from a decade back. Lovibond appears bobbed and dazzling in the crisp of early 1920s fashion she’s fashioned herself. Eve Ponsonby’s alert pretty Monica is already engaged, and she and the duller Betty (Macy Ryman showing aplomb in such a wrong-footing role) are different. They’re almost Edwardian with braided hair and flowing dresses, seemingly Art Nouveau throwbacks. Since ‘mother’ less than a decade their senior has dressed them it’s a statement of innocence. Their wish to add Noveau flowers is vetoed. It’s a clever way of illustrating how behind the times everyone but Lois is, even clever Monica who just happens to be engaged to Samuel Valentine’s gawky Cyril Bennett – whose father naturally opposes marriage to a Gaydon.
As if that wasn’t enough, family friend Peter Holland a sensitive, imposing figure well-inhabited by David Bark-Jones returns from a imposed three-month exile. It’s clear why he’s been exiled and comes back.
The play moves against the obvious axes of swindled innocent and even dastardly scheming husband who enunciates every vicious nostrum a stage villain would utter. The difference lies not only in Sowerby’s turning this bag of conditioned rat’s tails into the coherent dysfunctional character of Eustace but eliciting pathos for him in a fallen state.
It’s also this: Sowerby breaks one of the drawing room taboos in refusing to condemn the spontaneous overflow of naturally directed feelings, and creates an aftermath of plot convincing enough. Adultery, and Lois’ fear that her ‘daughters’ more than anyone else will reject her. Holland is himself complicit as Lois sees in helping Eustace (for the best reasons) create a house of cards in a complex arrangements of mortgages. Sowerby’s concentration on how a genuine business run with aplomb can be undermined by patriarchal deals whilst underpinning the business’s very existence is as unerring as the way she unpicks the Rutherford empire in her first major play.
Blackmails and bargainings back and forth reach a thrilling three-cornered climax when a fourth unexpectedly arrives with more than a whiff of redemption as well as female solidarity. No wonder this play frightened a 1924 audience. It’s more the kind of play Rattigan would investigate and its mores are thirty years ahead of its time.
Throughout Lovibond after her cowed orphan in the first act exudes a consummate businesswoman growing increasingly snappy, only giving way to explosive intensity with husband and lover, desperately fighting for her inherited children more than herself. What she also projects is the ambivalent not perfect ‘stepmother’: an inversion of the traditional evil one, but one harassed into exhaustion, anxiety, a hushed exultant love then distraught betrayal, and back.
Keen and Bark-Jones react with power and shades of puce not just to Lovibond but each other and in Keen’s case, everyone. There’s fine work too from Ponsonby and Valentine as carefree inheritors of an enormous effort on the part of Lovibond’s character to secure their independence. Sharon Wattis as the maid Mary, and in luxury casting Kaye Brown as Mrs Geddes, Lois’ employee, flesh out a portrait of wholly female enterprise and working relationships. It’s difficult to find a precedent, save glancingly in Shaw’s early Mrs Warren’s Profession.
This should transfer to the West End. Again and again you regret what indifference did to Sowerby. It silenced one of most original early 20th century dramatists as much as Swedish dramatist Victoria Benedictsson (1850-88) silenced herself, inspiring Strindberg, Ibsen and others. It also retarded our dramatic development. To have plays like this running in the 1920s might have blown the genteel three-acter into emotional maturity. If anyone should think it improbable a destitute orphan be left a vast sum incidentally, the irony is that it happened to the struggling, though married Sowerby just before she wrote The Stepmother. This legacy paradoxically allowed her to retire from the fray.