The Millionairess – September 2008

6/10

By George Bernard Shaw

Directed by Michael Friend

Company: Michael Friend Productions

Venue: Mill Studio

Date: Friday 5th September 2008

The set for the first scene comprised a green baize floor, several straight-backed chairs, with three in a row along the back, a desk to our right with a telephone and box file, and behind it was a part wall with a window made up of small panes. The only other thing I could see at the start was a big wastepaper basket under the desk. This was the office of a solicitor called Sagamore, and he was visited in the opening scene by a series of people whose lives were intertwined. The first was Epifania, a rich heiress, who nevertheless considered herself a pauper. Her father had been worth over 100 million pounds, but lost a lot of his money before he died, so she was left a measly 30 million pounds. Enough for most people, but a real come-down for her.

She’s totally spoilt, but savvy about money, and she wanted to make her will before committing suicide. Sagamore made no pretence to know anything, but managed to persuade her to give up her plan to kill herself by giving her explicit instructions on how to make a lethal cyanide potion. Her husband Alistair and his preferred woman, Patricia, arrived and join in the discussion, if I can call it that, followed by one of Epifania’s favourite’s, Adrian. The scene unfolded in an erratic way, as most of the characters ended up forgetting what they came to see Sagamore about originally.

Not that that was a problem for us. We learned about the reason why Epifania married Alistair, and why she was determined to kill herself and curse him by leaving him all her money. Her father, whom she totally revered, told her to test any man who wanted to marry her, in order to weed out undesirables. She was to give them two hundred and fifty pounds, and tell them to come back in six months with fifty thousand. Some had tried and failed, some had refused even to try, but Alistair, a good looking boxing champ who also played tennis, managed it. Unfortunately, he did it through a con, and as they spent more time together it became very clear that they were not at all compatible, although his good looks and her money obviously helped. He took to seeing Patricia, and Epifania spent a lot of time with Adrian, although it might be more accurate to say he spent time with her, as he liked his meals and she had a very good cook.

The con that Alistair used wasn’t entirely clear to me, but it seemed to involve writing cheques for money that Alistair and his partner-in-crime didn’t have, then writing more duff cheques to cover those, until the money started rolling in and they could cover all their initial outlay easily. Their project was putting a musical on the London stage, and, miraculously, they managed to find one that made money. Not as easy as you might think, looking at the West End listings nowadays. Anyway, that’s how Alistair got fifty thousand together in such a short time, although if he and his partner had been caught out, he’d have been in jail for a long time. One other thing we found out was that Epifania was a judo expert, and that Alistair had punched her in the solar plexus in self defence after she attacked him.

The second scene was set in a tatty pub, the Pig and Whistle. The wall and windows were moved over to our left, and turned round to reveal the pub sign and a seat underneath the window. The table was brought back on with a cloth, and another chair completed the setup. Adrian threw a minor strop because the food wasn’t too good, and Epifania used her judo skills to throw him down the stairs. This led to her meeting with an Egyptian doctor, a Muslim, or Mohammedan as they were then called, who works in a hospital in order to earn just enough money so that he can treat poor Muslims for free. She took a fancy to him, but it turns out his mother, on her death bed, made him promise to set a test for any woman who wanted to marry him. He was to give her 200 piastres (about 35 shillings), and with only that and the clothes she stood up in, she would have to make her own living for six months. Epifania accepted the challenge – she had to get her chauffeur to sub them both – and was confident that she’ll succeed. (The chauffeur had just returned from taking Adrian to the local cottage hospital, so that his injuries could be treated.)

The third scene, immediately after the interval, showed us the workshop of a couple who were employing a bunch of women at sweatshop wages making clothes. Epifania wants a job, but at first they took her for an inspector, and offered to pay her two and six a week if she left them alone. She was willing to take their money, although she bargained the price up to five bob, but when she found out how the system worked – a lorry brought them cloth and took away the finished goods – she realised she could buy out the middlemen and the business could start making some real money. The wife didn’t want anything to do with her new-fangled ideas, but the husband, possibly because he was used to being bossed about by strong women, decided to take the risk. From Epifania’s behaviour, it’s clear she learned a lot from her father, and she certainly knew her employment law. We could be confident that she’d change their fortunes before the play was out. She reckoned she only needed to spend an afternoon a week with them, so she set off to get a paying job for the rest of the week – a scullery maid at an hotel, for example.

The final scene was back at the pub six months later, only this time it was called something different (The Cardinal’s Hat?) and looked a lot posher. Alistair and Patricia were staying for a holiday, and asked the hotel manageress what had caused the changes to the place. She told them the following story. Her parents and grandparents, going back generations, had always run the pub on old-fashioned lines, and although it suited them, she felt it was too seedy for her taste. One day, about six months earlier, a woman had turned up and insisted on becoming a scullery maid with them. On her first day, she broke several plates, and the mother had complained. The scullery maid went off somewhere and came back with a whole service of beautiful plates, for next to nothing. From then on, she gradually took over the place, suggesting improvements, changing the décor, the clientele, and finally buying the manageress’s parents out altogether. They were able to retire, but at a price, with one of them having had a stroke, and both of them missing the way things used to be. She stayed on as manageress, and was really happy with the ways things were now. She let slip the name of the new boss, and yes, you’ve guessed it, it was Epifania. Alistair was horrified, and wanted to leave immediately, but Patricia calmed him down, and the manageress insisted that Epifania was rarely there these days. However, two other guests did turn up. One was Adrian, finally able to get about again after the most appalling problems with his various treatments, and the other was Sagamore.

Despite the manageress’s assurance, Epifania did indeed turn up, as we knew she would. It’s time for her to meet up with the doctor, who was also there but was shown up after all the other guests. At first Epifania was threatening to sue Patricia for taking her husband away – alienating his affections – but Patricia manageed to defeat that by pointing out that as she has no money, Epifania wouldn’t be able to get any from her, and she’d be only too happy to declare her love for Alistair publicly, so that people could see that she’d taken such an attractive and successful man from the richest woman in Europe. Backed up by Sagamore’s astute observations on the futility of such an action, and her own vanity, Epifania gave way, but then turned her attention to the doctor. She told him of her success, and he tried to counter with the story of his abysmal failure. He took the money and gave it to the widow of his old mentor, a chap who developed some technical thingummyjig which he didn’t patent, and so now private companies were making lots of money from it. He negotiated with these companies to give the old woman a pension, but with the costs of the funeral, the old dear was two hundred and fifty pounds short, hence the gift. Epifania counters this by reckoning that with the invention making so much money, she could consider the gift as a retrospective investment in the development of the whatever, so he’s actually passed the test. To the doctor’s own amazement, he realised he may have to marry her after all. However he did have one consolation. When he first got there, he checked her pulse, and found it to be one of the strongest he’d ever known. So wonderful was this pulse that he found it seductive in the extreme. At least he’ll get to feel it every day once they’re married.

This was a hugely enjoyable play, wordy, as with so many of Shaw’s, but with lots of good lines, and some interesting observations on the social conditions of the time. I don’t know how far into their tour this was, but there were a few fluffed lines, so I assume it’s early rather than late. I was very impressed with the performances, which seemed of a pretty high standard, and despite the low budget, the set and costumes were very effective. I wasn’t sure at first if Amanda Sterkenburg was putting on an accent as Epifania, but from her CV she’s Dutch, so I guess that was either her basic accent, or a general European one. I don’t remember if we’re told where Epifania comes from originally, but there are a number of references to her being European, and she reminded me a lot of Bluntschli from Arms and the Man, the Swiss hotelier. Like him, she has a clear-eyed view of the world and tremendous organisational skills, though I don’t think he was quite as enamoured with money as she is.

We had a good time, and would certainly see other productions by this company, as well as other productions of this play.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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