Tuesday, September 12, 2017


Chichester Festival Theatre at the Minerva

As seems to be the fashion on both sides of the road here, the stage is stygian as we walk in. This time, Tim Hatley's set – walled-off from the audience to dado height - is concealed in a black gauze box, which serves as an Act Curtain for this traditional well-made play.
The space inside becomes, with neatly choreographed changes of furniture and props, the house in Surrey, an office and a gentleman's flat in Albany.
It's the world of Galsworthy, Shaw or Somerset Maugham.
And also the world of Githa Sowerby; the difficult “second play” which followed her successful Rutherford and Sons.
It has scarcely been seen since its première in 1924. Too old-fashioned, melodramatic even, for the big boys, too difficult for the amateur stage. Also to blame, perhaps, is the very misogyny that this powerful drama exposes.
Miss Relph, Lois, is left a fortune by the woman whose companion she's been. Nineteen and naïve, still grieving, she's easy prey for the woman's brother, who believes the inheritance should have been his. “Fanny never liked me,” he whinges. He prevents the solicitor from seeing her, and welcomes the girl into the house, at first as governess to his two little girls.
Ten years pass.
Lois is now a successful businesswoman, using her skills as a seamstress to run the Ginevra couture house. But the repellent Eustace has lost all her money in risky investments, and it becomes clear that there is nothing left, save the income from the dress shop.
All the men involved, it seems, have conspired to keep the truth from her. “I hate talking business with a woman,” complains the family solicitor [Simon Chandler]; he will try his utmost to prevent his son [Samuel Valentine, resplendent in full dress uniform] from wedding Eustace's elder daughter [an excellent Eve Ponsonby].
As the monstrously manipulative Eustace, Will Keen gives a memorably reptilian performance, trembling with barely repressed violent rages, but managing to “smile and smile and be a villain”. His opposite in almost every way is kind dependable Peter, neighbour and financier, played with a fine sense of period by David Bark-Jones.
Ophelia Lovibond is Lois, movingly progressing from naïve, tearful teenager to capable business-woman to bruised, broken victim.
There's strong support from an outstanding company, including Joanna David as the aged Aunt Charlotte, Sharon Wattis as a moody maid, and Macy Nyman contributing a touching study of the dumpy younger daughter who goes to pieces as she learns of her stepmother's plight, her father's wickedness and Lois's infidelity.
Richard Eyre's immaculate production is probably more physical than the original of almost a century ago; it is shockingly brutal in its portrayal of the masculine mores of its time, by no means irrelevant in our own era.
Act One ends with a tender moment of love-making by the embers of the drawing room hearth. Act Two with tea for three, and countless questions unanswered: will the awful Eustace use Lois's £200 to start anew in the Antipodes – like Abel Magwitch ? Will Monica marry her Cyril, and will Lois find happiness with Peter, her rock, whose last awkward telephone call sends his love only as an afterthought …

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