By: Allan Monkhouse
Directed by: Auriol Smith
Venue: Orange Tree Theatre
Date: Saturday 16th April 2011
How do they keep finding these amazing, neglected plays? This was another gem from the Lancashire school of tell-it-like-it-is, 19th century playwrights, such as Harold Brighouse (Hobson’s Choice), and Stanley Houghton (Hindle Wakes), who, thanks to the program notes I now know were nurtured by Annie Horniman, but enough of that. This play throws a Wildean cuckoo into a no-nonsense businessman’s family, and a great of the humour comes from the ensuing culture clash.
The opening scene quickly establishes that the father, Mr Timbrell, and one son, Edgar, run the business, while the other son, Leonard, is a wastrel whom the father supports in order to keep him out of the family firm. Edgar is due to marry Sheila, a Thelma-in-the-making (Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads), and there’s also a sister, Ada. With these facts before us, it’s no time at all before we’re into the first family confrontation. Leonard, left alone briefly in the drawing room, is joined by Mary, the family’s maid. They’ve obviously had a fling of some sort, which is why Mary took a picture of Leonard that was by his mother’s bed. When his mother arrives clutching the picture, which she’s clearly found through searching Mary’s things, they’re about to have a small scene together when the rest of the family bursts in, and through various little comments it all comes out. Father is one of those bull-in-a-china-shop type of men; once he knows something’s going on he wants to have it out, regardless of the consequences. Mary keeps being told to leave, then told to stay; finally she speaks up for herself, as she wants to know what Leonard’s going to say. Ada and Sheila are sent out of the room once Mary’s impending motherhood comes out, but with ears and eyes competing for the keyhole, they don’t miss much. There’s a lovely moment after Leonard tells Edgar he doesn’t need to be there, and their father says, no, you stay – the look of triumphant smugness on Edgar’s face was a joy to behold, and got a huge laugh.
The story is a simple one – Leonard has got Mary pregnant – but the handling of it is hilariously funny. Leonard represents the Aesthetic Movement attitude, looking only for the beauty in life and heaping scorn on the mundane, practical, conventional and materialistic. He’s a writer, but earns very little for his writing, as he can’t bear to taint his art with mere monetary considerations. Mary can’t understand half the things he says, but wants to know if he loves her, even though she doesn’t expect him to marry her, class being what it was. The father, on the other hand, decides that Leonard’s off-hand manner about the whole affair is totally wrong, and issues an ultimatum – marry the girl or he’ll cut off Leonard’s allowance. With a bit more to-ing and fro-ing, the deal is done, and the couple agree to marry.
To make his point, the father had asked Ada to fetch the family bible – this is when the proximity of Ada and Sheila became apparent. The tradition was to write all the family events into their bible, and so the father prepares to inscribe Leonard and Mary’s names as soon as the proposal is accepted, never mind the prior claims of Edgar and Sheila. He’s so keen, in fact, that the word ‘yes’ has scarcely escaped Mary’s lips, and he’s already dipping his pen into the ink to make the entry – another good laugh, followed by more when he has to ask Mary what her surname is.
The next act is set in the same room, on Christmas Eve. The family are having a little get-together, with a couple of family friends invited as well. Mary and Leonard are over-dressed, and for once even I could see this – all credit to the costume designer. The situation is slightly awkward, and despite all efforts to avoid unpleasantness, Leonard just has to keep sticking his oar in. He makes some oblique reference to his mother having a past life – nothing terrible as far as I could see – which got his father very angry. He cuts Leonard off, despite his having to support a wife and new baby, and storms off to dinner. Incidentally, the dinner was delayed because there had been a fall of soot in the dining room which had to be cleared up. When the maid reports this, Mary makes a comment about the problems with that chimney, which reminds everyone of her origins. But for that fall of soot, the conversation may never have got round to people’s hidden depths, and the rest of the play may never have happened – very Dangerous Corner.
The third act is set in a small part of the stage (yes, I know – how could anything be smaller than the Orange Tree stage!) with towels drying on a rack by a small stove, a sofa and table and not much else. Leonard and Mary are clearly in difficulties, and his flippant manner, which seemed charming in the drawing room, seems churlish and almost obscene at times in this setting. Their child is sick, and with no money for a doctor, never mind food for the baby and Mary herself, the situation is pretty serious, and Leonard’s attempts to lighten the mood show up the shallowness of his approach. Mary’s parents arrive, and her mother was pretty upset when she found out that Mary lied to them about leaving for Canada, when she was in England all the time. Mrs Timbrell also arrives, and with her help – she hands over her engagement ring for Leonard to pawn – they can get the doctor to look at the baby.
It’s all too late, though. The final act, a short while later, has Mary coming to the Timbrell house to tell them she’s leaving for Canada with the man she had been seeing before Leonard got her pregnant. They’re off to start a new life together, and the best of luck to them. It’s not long after the baby’s funeral, and it’s pretty shocking to find that Leonard contrived to be absent from that family event. Sheila is now pregnant and worried about having been unkind to Mary – she does at last seem to have learned some manners. Mr Timbrell is contrite enough to be willing to support Mary again – if he hadn’t cut them off, the little boy would still be alive – and Leonard is willing to make another go of it, but she surprises them all with her announcement. Only Mrs Trimbell understands, and is supportive. It’s a slightly low-key ending, compared with some of the strong about-turns of similar plays, but it fits with the characters we’ve met.
The performances were all excellent. I especially liked the nosy neighbours, who were only too happy to enjoy the family’s discomfort at the pre-Christmas dinner party. Jack Farthing as Leonard and Katie McGuiness as Mary were particularly good, and the play itself has lasted pretty well.
© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me