THE NOTORIOUS MRS EBBSMITH
by Sir Arthur Wing Pinero.
Jermyn Street Theatre 16b Jermyn Street SW1Y 6ST To 3 May 2014.
Mon-Sat 7.30pm Mat Sat 3.30pm
Runs 2hr 30min One interval.
TICKETS: 020 7287 2875.
Review: Timothy Ramsden 10 April.
Bet-hedging Victorian shocker newly displayed to be caught at its first revival.
Mrs Ebbsmith may shock those who know Arthur Wing Pinero from farces like The Magistrate. Though a modern audience’s mindset and Jermyn Street’s intimacy allow a rapidity of speech and opening for comic inflections less likely on the larger, raised stage of the play’s 1895 premiere, the seriousness of this social and moral drama is evident.
Primavera, a company admirably devoted to reviving forgotten plays, show why Pinero was knighted yet included within George Bernard Shaw’s scorn for 1890s social drama. Mrs Ebbsmith is notorious for being what the age called a ‘new woman’, and its less sympathetic members an “unwomanly woman”, with her history of radical speeches in out-of-the-way church halls and an open relationship with a married man – though Pinero carefully makes her a widow rather than a slightly later-life version of Ibsen’s Nora Helmer.
“Mad Agnes”, as she became known, is on the verge of ruining a well-connected young man’s political career by involving him with her life and ideas. Just as unconventional characters were packed-off abroad at the end of Victorian novels and plays (if they didn’t die) Pinero sets events on holiday in Venice then opens the prospect of her staying with new-made friends in Yorkshire.
A Shavian Agnes would demolish the opposition with wit and, after a few possible qualms, get on with her life. Agnes is turned by a new dress. The change from her body-covering clothes to this elegant gown marks her absorption into the mainstream, and her falling into a love, as opposed to philosophical, relationship with Lucas Cleeve (significantly he’s a few years younger so it’s the woman leading-on the man).
Abbey Wright’s revival does what it can for Agnes, making her finally settle to her writing. Earlier it presents ideas clearly, though Rhianon Sommers’ sterling performance could benefit from more focus on the person she’s speaking to, and less reliance on external indications of mood.
Her real opposition, and the performance that really mines his character’s cunning tactics, is Christopher Ravenscroft’s Duke, emissary of convention, one who is physically sick from debauchery with young women of the ‘old’ sort.
Nella/Sibyl Cleeve: Sarah Madigan.
Antonio: Niccoló Curradi.
Gertrude Thorpe: Julia Goulding.
Rev Amos Winterfield: Richard Beanland.
Dr Kirke: Robert Benfield.
Sir George Brodrick/Sir Sandford Cleeve: Peter Sandys-Clarke.
Agnes Ebbsmith: Rhiannon Sommers.
Lucas Cleeve: Max Hutchinson.
Duke of St Olpherts: Christoopher Ravenscroft.
Director: Abbey Wright.
Designer: Cherry Truluck.
Lighting: Tim Mascall.
Sound/Composer: Simon Slater.
Costume: Victoria Johnstone.
Assistant director: Jennifer Pearcy-Edwards.