Orange Tree, Richmond (London) ****
Fashion in Theatre as in Art has a time lapse. Playwrights who were fashionable in their time disappear only to re-emerge and be `re-discovered’. Nowhere more so than with female playwrights.
Sam Walters at his small but perfectly formed in-the-round Orange Tree theatre in Richmond has been busy uncovering them for the past three decades, especially from the Edwardian and post WW1 era. His recent revival of Githa Sowerby’s The Stepmother is a wonderful case in point.
Sowerby is currently back in the news because of Rutherford & Son, her most famous play to date, written in 1912 and currently touring in a much acclaimed Northern Broadsides production by Jonathan Miller. The Stepmother, written twelve years later, is an even more vivid exploration of new attitudes to women at work and in the home which judging by this, has lost none of its relevance ninety years later.
Sowerby was a Fabian, much influenced by the group led by Shaw, Sidney and Beatrice Webb and others but even more concerned with the position of women in society.
Whilst The Stepmother may not carry the mischievousness of Shaw, neither does it carry his dialectical ponderousness.
Sowerby presents the situation of a young woman, taken into a home as first a `companion’, then governess, then wife to an older partner and businessman, Eustace Gaydon with a depth, subtlety and emotional insight Shaw seldom matches.
It’s a remarkable, detailed slow-burn of play building to a climax that even now makes audiences gasp.
Oozing charm from every pore, Christopher Ravenscroft’s portrait of Eustace is a small master class in self justification (all too many latter day equivalents spring to mind) as he first swindles then exploits and finally loses his young wife’s inheritance all in the name of doing what is best for her, protecting her and his family of two girls.
Gradually you watch as, like a chrysalis emerging from its cocoon, Katie McGuinness’s innocent and hard-working Lois – she has skills as a dressmaker and has built up a small business – painfully realises the cost of ignorance and lack of control over her own financial affairs whilst trying to carry on the job of wife and particularly mother to the two young step-daughters for whom she now feels responsibility.
A conscious repudiation on Sowerby’s part of the usual `wicked stepmother’ of fairy-tale myth, Walters’ rare revival of this seldom seen play (indeed not staged since its original private performance in 1924) is, as always at this theatre, a model of period detail, skilfully presented, seamless in its set transitions and beautifully cast and played.
A revelation, well worth the trip. Perhaps now Githa Sowerby may be recognised for the talent she is and not have to be `rediscovered’ as a respectable playwright by every new generation!
The Stepmother is at the Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond to March 9, 2013; see www.orangetreetheatre.co.uk
Review published on this site, Sept 9, 2017
First published on Londongrip, Feb 24, 2013