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.
Continue reading The Guardian Review of ‘The Stepmother’
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.
Continue reading The Telegraph Review of ‘The Stepmother’
It seems astonishing that The Stepmother has languished unperformed and quite forgotten for nearly a century. Githa Sowerby’s play, although written at a time when women had little financial independence, still has some uncomfortable resonances today. And her depiction of how seemingly stable and respectable businesses can be built on an edifice of debt and deceit has some stark parallels with the collapse of Enron and the Robert Maxwell empire.
But it’s the “massive injustice” done to women that fired up director Richard Eyre. That, and the possibility of reviving another forgotten masterpiece, as he already had done with the same author’s Rutherford and Son. The story of how Lois is exploited and betrayed by her husband sometimes makes uncomfortable viewing but Eyre’s assured production ensures that it’s always compelling.
Key to this is Will Keen’s performance as the manipulative and scheming Eustace, Lois’ husband. It’s an astonishingly unsympathetic role: a pathetic, venal bully and it would be easy to make him a stereotypical pantomime villain. But Keen’s performance, all smirks, giggles and smiles gives us a man whose stock-in-trade is emotional blackmail, whose whining voice hides his own inadequacies and who presents himself as victim, even when all his deceit is laid bare.
It’s an astonishing performance and while it’s the centrepiece of the production, Ophelia Lovibond’s Lois, the eponymous stepmother, is a powerful counterpoint. She visibly grows from a shy teenager to a successful business woman and family head.
There are strong performances too from Eve Ponsonby as Monica, the step daughter growing up all too quickly, Simon Chandler as the upright solicitor who sees through Eustace’s misdeeds and Joanna David as a befuddled matriarch.
If there’s a downside it’s that Sowerby is infuriatingly vague on some of the financial details. How does Eustace lose so much money? Would a woman of Lois’ undoubted business sense and financial acumen be quite so uninterested in the state of her own finances? What comes out strongly is the burning anger as to how women are held back when it comes to economic power, an anger that still carries on until this day.
Ophelia Lovibond’s powerful portrayal of Lois Relph would have surely met with the approval of Githa Sowerby, who wrote The Stepmother, showing at the Chichester Festival Theatre until September 9.
Lovibond’s exquisite performance exudes the requisite strength to tackle head-on challenges facing women from a century ago, such as equal pay; yet, sadly, they remain pertinent today.
Opposite her, Will Keen, as her bit-of-a-scoundrel husband, was brilliantly animated and this enraged flamboyance, along with some superbly delivered lines, was a highlight.
Sowerby’s work has up until recently been consigned to history and those who sat before Richard Eyre’s production at the Minerva must be puzzled as to why this has been the case.
Her best-known play, Rutherford and Son, is acknowledged as one of the 100 most influential plays of the 20th century. Here, in her lesser known yet not unworthy work, we are taken to 1924 and a comfortable abode in Surrey.
Orphaned Lois weds the older Eustace Gaydon (Keen) in the mistaken belief that he has her concerns at heart. Of course, he doesn’t. Far from it, in fact. He wants her money; an inheritance from his sister who had clearly seen through his devious ways.
But he gets his hands on the loot ably assisted by the convenience of marriage and a younger, naive bride — before his wife goes on to build up a thriving dress designing business.
The money is forgotten about as far as the now independent Lois is concerned until one of her devoted step-daughters needs some financial assistance and she seeks a slice of the fortune; and it is here where the true motives of the manipulative and conniving Eustace come to light.
Source: Chichester News
Ophelia Lovibond, who recently appeared in The Libertine at Theatre Royal Haymarket (also known for her role in BBC1’s W1A), is currently starring in Githa Sowerby’s The Stepmother at the Minerva Theatre in Chichester. Written and set in the mid 1920s, the play sees the titular stepmother and orphan, Lois, caring for the two adolescent children of her husband. What emerges is one of the earliest stage discussions of patriarchy and gender, heightened in a period when women were still in the process of receiving the vote and gaining equal rights.
How did you explore the character of Lois?
A lot of it is there in the writing. Githa Sowerby’s writing is so rich, there’s so much intonation there in terms of the character’s internal monologue and their psychology – considering the play was written in 1924 and Freud was writing from 1912. What she’s talking about is groundbreaking: to rail against the patriarchy. This fleshes out why Lois acts the way she does but also why she swallows a lot of it – why she just accepts and protects her stepchildren, against the malignant influence of their father.
You have to play the same character aged both 19 and 29, how did you approach that?
The ten year age gap is really fun to explore – and how to express that physically, vocally and in terms of posture. You get no peek into that period – you have to think what it would have been like to see her living under the force of her husband. She would have had to harden in a lot of respects. You change a lot in your twenties. The period seems to have been a sink or swim scenario but she decided to swim. She decided which battles to fight and which to let go by.
Continue reading Ophelia Lovibond: ‘Women’s rights are human rights’