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The Guardian Review of ‘The Stepmother’

n a house in Surrey in 1911, the small talk is about newfangled electric lighting, and yet for a modern audience Githa Sowerby’s superb and seldom performed The Stepmother (1924) takes place in what we might like to think of as a dark age, in which English women were treated with condescension by men and unenlightened on the subject of money. This is a play about the various ways in which women were subjugated. The action takes place in a sombre drawing room where everything has weight: furniture, conversation, atmosphere (design by fastidious Tim Hatley, master of mahogany).

On press night, when Will Keen’s Eustace took a bow, he was – and I’ve never heard this happen outside pantomime – booed. A better compliment than applause, this was in response to his outstanding performance as a manipulative, abject, self-serving husband. Eustace (married to the stepmother of the title) is a cad and a bounder, and Keen comically covers for his character’s morals with a delinquent’s prancing, a defensive quickstep – he is a middle-aged, not-so-artful dodger. He smokes his pipe luxuriously, laughs mirthlessly, and does shock as well as any actor I have seen. When he hears that he is not inheriting his aunt’s money and, later, when he understands his wife has been unfaithful to him, there is something comically clockwork about Eustace’s gait as he staggers away from blows.

Richard Eyre is at his masterly best as an orchestrator here, harmoniously overseeing moral chaos. Sowerby – best known for her 1912 play Rutherford and Son – shows that it is not enough to have a purse of one’s own; a woman must have control of the purse strings (Eustace yanks at these). The play reminds us that money is always about more than money – control, for instance. Eustace’s old aunt (Joanna David) has made her peace with financial incomprehension. For her, ignorance is, if not bliss, preferable to the truth of understanding Eustace’s profligacy.

But Lois, the stepmother, never chose to be in the dark. Unaware that Eustace married her for her inheritance, she is a shrewd clothes designer, a breadwinner with no control of the bread. A snappy dresser, Lois can be snappy in the other sense, although manifestly devoted to her stepdaughters. She is beautifully interpreted by Ophelia Lovibond – a mix of vulnerability and resolution. When her stepdaughter Monica wishes to marry against Eustace’s wishes, Lois boldly agrees to a £10,000 dowry (multiply cash figures by 100 for their equivalent today, Eyre advises in the programme). In flapper’s pink, Eve Ponsonby’s delicious Monica resembles a recently hatched butterfly with nowhere to land. Her sister Betty, in frumpier frock, is more stalled, charmingly played by Macy Nyman. Monica’s fiance, Cyril (Samuel Valentine), brings an exuberant gaucherie to his suit. Peter (David Bark-Jones) is excellent as Lois’s steady, debonair, neighbourly love interest (he knows about the other sort of interest too, yet proves no better than her husband at sharing what he knows).

The play becomes as tense as a thriller, with traces of Chekhov, Ibsen and Henry James – although the characters are less developed. The writing is satisfyingly direct. The line that best expresses the play’s tenor (and one most of the women could pose to most of the men) is Lois’s simple question: “Why didn’t you tell me?” It is a measure of the subtlety of the production that, by the end, one is reflecting that this hugely enjoyable, tremendously well-performed play is not altogether a period piece after all.

Source: The Guardian