The Stepmother – March 2013

Experience: 9/10

By Githa Sowerby

Directed by Sam Walters

Venue: Orange Tree

Date: Monday 4th March 2013

We’re having something of a Githa Sowerby mini-festival at the moment; given that she only wrote three or four plays in total, seeing two of them in quick succession is quite something, and from what I’ve seen, they deserve to be revived much more often. We’ll be seeing Rutherford and Son in a few weeks’ time; tonight’s play dealt with the financial situation for women in the 1920s, and gave us one of the nastiest male characters to be seen on stage in any play.

Not only was this the first professional production of this play in the UK, it was also our first time upstairs at the Orange Tree. We weren’t as close to the action, and although our position in one of the corners gave us a good view of the performance, we definitely prefer the ground level.

The set was a flexible design which allowed for two other locations in addition to the sitting room in Eustace Gaydon’s house in which most of the action was set. From the entrance corner there was a fireplace with two armchairs on the left side, French windows to the garden in the middle of the far left side (the seating had been moved to the adjacent corners), a sofa with coffee table on the far right and a desk and chair on the right hand side. Between the Prologue and the first act there were some minor changes to the furnishings to indicate the passing of time.

After the interval, there were two short scenes in other locations, and the furniture was rearranged so that both were on stage at the same time. On the far side, next to the French windows, the desk, chairs and the central section of the sofa had been set up as Lois’s business room with the addition of a filing cabinet. On the near side were the fireplace and the other two parts of the sofa, representing Peter’s flat. At the end of the first scene, Lois left her room and walked a few feet into Peter’s flat to continue the play; with the lighting changes this was very effective.

It only took a few minutes for the cast to change things back to the sitting room again, and since the previous scene had left us with a cliff-hanging moment, the energy didn’t flag at all; I was champing at the bit to find out how the story would work out. The final act resolved things in as satisfactory a way as could be expected, and our only disappointment was that we hadn’t been able to make any of the midweek matinees for a post-show discussion.

The Prologue (practically an Act in itself) was set in 1911, and introduced us to Eustace Gaydon’s household. It soon became clear that Eustace had money worries, and that he had relied on receiving a large inheritance from the estate of his recently deceased sister. When he found out who would actually be getting the money, he was angry though he tried his best to hide it, but he soon decided on a course of action which would lead to the rest of the events in the play.

The first Act was set in 1921. With Eustace remarried, his two daughters now had a stepmother, and it soon became clear that the three women got on very well. Lois, the new Mrs Gaydon, was perhaps too fond of her step-daughters, and they loved her as if she were their own mother. There was also the aging Aunt Charlotte, whose increasing deafness and memory loss suggested that she wouldn’t last to the end of the play, and so it proved.

Despite the convention of the wife staying at home to look after the family, Lois had taken her ‘hobby’ of dressmaking and turned it into a successful dress design business. Her husband had taken on the management of her financial affairs, and the girls were both now grown up and the elder, Monica, was keen to be married. Unfortunately, her intended, Cyril, was the son of a solicitor, Mr Bennet, with whom Eustace had fallen out years ago. Mr Bennet objected strongly to the match, and Eustace simply wouldn’t take the subject seriously, laughing off Monica’s pleas for assistance. When Monica turned to Lois for help, she agreed to discuss the matter with her husband. The resulting disagreement, just before Eustace left on a long business trip, led to Lois taking matters into her own hands and promising Mr Bennet that she would provide a settlement for Monica of £10,000. Despite his total disbelief that the money would be forthcoming, Mr Bennet agreed to withdraw his objections once the settlement had been drawn up.

When Eustace returned from his trip and confronted Lois about her promise, the revelations were shocking to her. What was more shocking to the audience was the despicable way that Eustace tried to turn everything round to blame her. I’ve never heard so many gasps of shocked laughter at any performance before, and I’m not sure I’ve heard that many at all the other plays I’ve seen put together. Eustace’s final demand to Lois, backed by the threat of telling her secret to his daughters, was horrifying in its viciousness; by this time I was desperately keen to see him get his comeuppance and I’m sure I wasn’t alone in that.

Lois did at least have someone else to turn to. Her platonic friendship with Peter Holland, a neighbour who also happened to be a lawyer and very rich, changed when Lois found herself in need of more substantial support than a chat. This one transgression was discovered by Eustace, and he held it over Lois to manipulate her to his own advantage. Peter, on the other hand, wasn’t so easy to push around, and his forcing of the situation gave Eustace two options, each equally unpleasant (hooray!). With the set being rearranged for the final act, what would Eustace do?

Well, he basically behaved as he always had; blamed others for his misfortune, charmed where he saw some advantage in it and tried to bully when the charm didn’t work. His final theft of some money before leaving the stage was spotted by one of his daughters, and despite Eustace’s attempt to spread a little nastiness, the girls were determined to stick by their stepmother. Cyril was also determined to stick by Monica, and with a final phone call between Peter and Monica, overheard by Lois, the play concluded satisfactorily.

We were very impressed both by the writing and the performances. It’s not easy to portray such a figure of hate without tipping over into pantomime villain, but Christopher Ravenscroft held the line brilliantly. The audience’s reactions to Eustace’s flagrant deceptions and self-justification were regularly audible: after he asked Lois a question such as “don’t you trust me?” one woman in the audience said “No!”. I would have liked to call out myself on occasion, but at the same time I wanted to concentrate on what was happening with all the characters. Eustace was a very human villain too, the sort of person who does exist and has preyed on others from the dawn of time.

The other characters were nicer, of course, but not without their flaws as well. I did wonder how the young couple would manage once they had to fend for themselves, and Lois was clearly a bit of a wimp despite setting up and running a successful business. With such a strong cast the minor characters were very well drawn too, and I noticed a similarity with Rutherford And Son in that Githa Sowerby has an outsider come in to the play (in this case, Mrs Geddes) to give a different perspective.

This was another great production by the Orange Tree, and I do hope this play will be revived more often; we’d certainly see it again very happily.

© 2013 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

One comment on “The Stepmother – March 2013

  1. […] and I thoroughly enjoyed seeing The Stepmother by Githa Sowerby at the Orange Tree in March 2013. Having raved about the play and production, I […]

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