After its premiere one Sunday evening in January 1924, The Observer glowingly suggested that Githa Sowerby’s The Stepmother was too interesting not to be given a further life. Yet it languished unperformed for the best part of a century.
With Rutherford and Son (1912), the Gateshead-born Sowerby (only revealed as a woman after her debut was already acclaimed) became the darling of the Edwardian theatre. Yet within a decade her star had waned and she was so irked that in 1970, the year of her death, she destroyed all her private letters and photographs, insisting that no one would ever be interested in them.
Bearing shades of Ibsen, Strindberg and Shaw but with a personality of its own, The Stepmother was effectively rediscovered in the UK in 2013 at the Orange Tree in Richmond. And now Richard Eyre might just have delivered the boost needed to give Sowerby’s penultimate work a place in the 20th-century canon. I say “just”…
Although the piece is confirmed, in his accomplished revival, as an immensely engaging and faintly shocking indictment of the lot of women before the coming of emancipation, it does so by means of a male protagonist so dastardly in his deviousness he might have escaped from a Victorian melodrama.
The evening in fact begins in 1914, amid the last flickers of the gaslight era, the arrival of electricity alluded to at the start. In the gloom of his Surrey parlour, Eustace Gaydon – “a thin, spare man of 45 with a jerky manner and a ready laugh”, Sowerby stipulates – learns from a solicitor called Bennet that his sister has left £30,000 (millions by today’s standards) to the penniless 19-year-old girl, Lois, who’s been living under his roof, and that he has been bequeathed nothing.
A disaster – he has money troubles, two young daughters – and one which he swiftly sets about averting by wooing this meek creature with feigned generosity before she can find out about her wealth. Fast-forward a decade, and the now-married Lois has grown successful in her own right as a dressmaker – albeit required to pool resources with her husband. The match is plainly unhappy and she stands poised to learn just what a consummate cad Eustace is as he tries to kibosh the marriage of his eldest daughter to Bennet’s son (thereby preventing exposure of his past misdeeds and current financial crisis, too) while punishing Lois for seeking amorous refuge in the arms of the neighbour who owns their mortgage.
The production gathers thrillingly to a head, but it says much about the strength of his performance and the relative weakness of the play that at the curtain call Will Keen, playing Eustace, earns the kind of boos usually reserved for Mr Punch. His is a wonderfully reptilian account of masculinity at its most self-serving, bullying and brazenly hypocritical – all darting looks, weasel words and vulpine smiles.
Transformed, Eliza Doolittle-style, from lowly waif to radiant bob-haired beauty, one who learns to fight the patriarchal system for the benefit of the generation below her (thereby upending the stereotype of the wicked stepmother), Ophelia Lovibond does full justice to her character’s essential goodness while bringing home her relatable everyday needs and moods. Highly recommended, but men in the audience should be prepared to squirm.
Source: The Telegraph