The Man Who Pays The Piper – March 2013

Experience: 9/10

By G B Stern

Directed by Helen Leblique

Venue: Orange Tree Theatre

Date: Saturday 23rd March 2013

It would be hard not to notice the theme to this year’s Orange Tree program. First there was The Stepmother, a play by Githa Sowerby about women’s need for financial independence, and now, in this play, G B Stern also exposes the social changes that led to a generation of young women developing careers first and families second. As the next play is called The Breadwinner, the theme is clearly continuing for a while yet. And fortunately, with Sam Walters’ gift for unearthing and scheduling both neglected plays and new work, this is proving to be a season well worth catching, yet again.

This play had other links with The Stepmother, too. Both start with a Prologue before showing us the characters some years down the line and finishing off with a further jump in time to see how it all turns out – Steve was reminded of Time And The Conways, though without the return to the earlier period. The choice of career for the central female role was the same as well – running a fashion house; perhaps this was an easily recognisable avenue for a woman to express her ambitions which the audience would find acceptable.

The set for the Prologue and first two acts comprised lots of Edwardian furniture in two arrangements, one for the entrance hall of the Fairley’s house and the other for the sitting room. It took the cast a little while to rearrange things each time, but they did it in character which was fun. On the whole though I prefer things left as they are unless absolutely necessary. There was a fireplace in the right hand corner at the start which moved round the stage a bit along with its rug, a desk, chairs, mini sofa etc. The final act was set in the Warings’ flat in Knightsbridge, and the furniture was mostly modern for the period (1930). I spotted some old theatre programs on the desk for this scene, which naturally drew my attention; nice to see such detail in the design.

The Prologue, set in 1913, introduced us to Doctor Fairley, his wife and one of his daughters. Daryll, his second daughter, hadn’t come home yet and it was after midnight! Sending his wife to bed, Doctor Fairley stayed up to wait for his daughter, and the Prologue was mainly their confrontation after she arrived home. It set up the basic conflict – how much authority does the person who pays the bills have over other people who depend on them? Daryll was in a difficult position; being only eighteen she wasn’t yet able to support herself. Her father’s insistence that she come home before midnight was borderline reasonable, but his emphasis on the brutal fact that as he paid for everything she owed him obedience was just too much for her.

The first Act proper showed us the situation in 1926, thirteen years on. We soon learned that Doctor Fairley had enlisted during the war as an army doctor, and died while abroad. Daryll had then gone into the fashion business and made a great success of it, so much so that she was supporting her entire family to a much better standard than they had any right to expect. With a mother, two sisters and a brother to pay for (the elder brother must have died during the war, but I didn’t catch that detail at the time) not to mention an older servant, Maggie, who was probably not re-employable by anyone else, Daryll was finding out the hard way what her father meant about being the sole income provider. This was put to the strongest test when her younger sister, Fay, chose to return home at 4am with a group of friends, drunk and noisy, and carry on as if no one else lived in the house – Sir Toby Belch would have been proud. The resulting confrontation between the two sisters the next day was a fascinating contrast with the earlier one between Daryll and her father. Daryll also played the income card, with great reluctance, but Fay was not the same type of person that her sister was all those years ago. Daryll was keen to assert her independence at that time and got the opportunity, in spades! Fay is one of the ‘bright young things’, and totally addicted to her pampered lifestyle. The idea of having to go out and earn her own living was completely unthinkable, and the threat of it was the only thing that managed to get through to her.

For the final Act, we got to see Daryll as the married woman, and it’s no surprise that she’s bored stiff with nothing to do. She jumped at a chance to re-engage herself with the fashion house she had built up during her working years, and with only a short time to catch the train for the boat to Paris, she decided that her marriage was effectively over. Only some quick thinking by her husband, Rufus, saved the day and left us with a satisfactory ending.

That’s the bare bones of the story, but there was a lot more to the play and plenty of humour as well. The timing of the various sections gave us an insight into the social changes that happened as a result of the First World War, and the different attitudes of the pre- and post-war generations. There was also the interest of seeing a piece written before the big stock market crash that would force all of these characters to face a much harsher economic reality. And given the period, it’s not surprising that the option of a married couple both working wasn’t really considered. It’s also worth noting that these plays only concern the middle classes; working class women had been earning their own livings and supporting families for a long, long time before this.

The humour was excellent too. Some of the best laughs came during the first Act, in the 1926 period, when we learned that Mrs Fairley, the widow, had married again to an unemployed double-bassist, Benny, without telling Daryll. Benny was due to deliver the revelation to Daryll when she returned from work that day, and the behaviour of everyone else suggested that Daryll would not take the news well. In fact, she was a total brick, putting a good face on everything and taking the whole family, including its newest member, out for an expensive celebratory meal at a posh restaurant.

The drunken scene showed us the unpleasant side of the ‘bright young things’ with their total disregard for anyone but themselves and their own pleasure. I couldn’t follow all of the dialogue for this bit, but again they stayed in character to change the furniture back for the next scene, which was good fun. The final Act allowed Christopher Ravenscroft back on stage as the butler – he was the father in the Prologue – and the discussion on sorting out a married relationship was quite good fun, with some entertaining expressions on Rufus’ face as he tried to grasp what was going on and come up with a strategy for dealing with it.

The performances from the main characters were all marvellous. Christopher Ravenscroft had a chance to play a much nicer husband and father after his villainous role in The Stepmother.  The Prologue underpinned the rest of the play’s events, and it was essential to establish that scene firmly in our minds, which he and Deirdre Mullins as Daryll did very effectively. Deirdre Mullins carried her performance really strongly throughout the play, showing us the difficulties of her character’s situation and the reasons for her choices. Many of these difficulties are still around today, though with different social attitudes the pressures and choices are different too.

Jennifer Higham, so lively and high-spirited in The Woman Hater, was wonderfully nervous as another of Daryll’s sisters, Penelope; she flinched noticeably whenever something happened that might upset Daryll, which was just about everything. Stuart Fox was excellent as Benny, the double-bassist, and Simon Harrison kept Rufus from being just a male chauvinist. His solution to the marriage problem was inventive and entertaining, and with Daryll finally realising another possible option for their relationship, the ending reminded me strongly of The Taming Of The Shrew. Instead of demanding and insisting, she realised she could ask Rufus for permission to go to France, and her “May I?” ended the play. I think they’ll be fine.

Again, we regretted not being able to see a midweek matinee, as the discussion would have been very interesting, but as it is we’re glad to have seen another great play at one of our favourite venues.

© 2013 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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