by Githa Sowerby.
Orange Tree Theatre 1 Clarence Street TW9 2SA To 9 M arch 2013.
Mon-Sat 7.45pm Mat Sat 3pm & 21, 28 Feb 2.30pm (+ Post-show Discussion).
Audio-described 19 Feb, 23 Feb 3pm.
Runs 2hr 35min One interval.
TICKETS: 020 8940 3633.
Review: Timothy Ramsden 16 February.
More valuable dramatic fruit from the Orange Tree.
When a play opens with a woman knitting and ends with three women drinking tea you might know you’re in the hands of a female playwright. Which I hope Githa Sowerby wouldn’t take as an insult. Her better-known play Rutherford & Son (coincidentally revived this spring by Northern Broadsides) shows she can do the heavy stuff from a female perspective, as an industrialist crushes his family. In The Stepmother, receiving almost its premiere at the Orange Tree, men hold power and purse-strings but Lois Relph is the practical one, the benign stepmother who gets things done and asserts her dignity.
Certainly in Katie McGuiness’s superbly-judged incarnation, which begins as a trembling, fearful dependant, yet to learn the nature of the man she thinks she should thank. Every detail of realisation registers in McGuinness’s features and stance. Determination finds expression almost despite herself as the props of her life are removed, enforcing self-reliance. More than one person lets her down in some way, and Sowerby uses this to excuse the fact, difficult for 1924, of her extra-marital liaison.
The other major performance is Christopher Ravenscroft as Eustace Gaydon, who only has to look at money for it to disappear. From the moment he tears up a cheque he realises he can’t meet, anxiety shows from beneath an attempted confidence which crumbles into aggression and evasive weakness. It’s an achievement, helped by the actor’s ability in expressing ferocity through controlled, intense quietness of voice, to keep understanding, if not sympathy, for the character.
Generally, director Sam Walters seems to have cast actors who don’t fit our usual images of their period and type. It keeps a freshness which aptly frames both Ravenscroft’s and particularly McGuinness’s investigations of Eugene and Lois, combining a period context with immediacy of feeling.
Designer Katy Mills makes clear this isn’t the swinging flappers’ twenties, but a world already formed on conventional lines. Behind the audience, her designs contrast the openness of opportunity with closed-in walls and the sense of entrapment, to enhance the fully-rounded picture of a revival which surely won’t see the last of Sowerby’s play.
Charlotte Gaydon: Julia Watson.
Mary/Mrs Geddes: Joannah Tincey.
Eustace: Christopher Ravenscroft.
Mr Bennet: Stuart Fox.
Monica: Jennifer Higham.
Betty: Emily Tucker.
Lois Relph: Katie McGuinness.
Cyril Bennet: Alan Mossissey.
Peter Holland: Christopher Naylor.
Monica as a child: Smilia Bjerre Christensen/Colette Leech/Bronwen Pailthorpe/Lola Rushton.
Betty as a child: Laura Doggett/Luna Helledie/Jemma Rubens/Isabella Walsh-Whitfield.
Director: Sam Walters.
Designer: Katy Mills.
Lighting: Stuart Burgess.
Costume: Robyn Wilson.