The Breadwinner – May 2013

Experience: 7/10

By Somerset Maugham

Directed by Auriol Smith

Venue: Orange Tree Theatre

Date: Tuesday 7th May 2013

Another little gem from the Orange Tree, this time with a husband and father, the breadwinner of the title, turning the tables on his spoilt wife and pampered children. Set in 1930, the play deals with the social and economic after-effects of the First World War in a light-hearted way, with the characters making some valid points as well as showing us some less pleasant aspects of human behaviour.

It started with the young ‘uns, the son and daughter of two families, the Battles and the Grangers. Charles Battle is a stockbroker and his wife Margery dabbles in the arts. Her first cousin is Dorothy Granger, an idle woman who seems to occupy herself with “flirtations”, though whether real or imagined we weren’t quite sure. Her husband Alfred is a solicitor, and Charles is one of his clients. The children – Judy and Patrick Battle and Diana and Timothy Granger – are all on the brink of adulthood, and incredibly pompous with it. They spent the first twenty minutes discussing the uselessness of old people, by which they meant anyone over the age of forty, and how parents really ought to be put down humanely once they reached that age. Since the average age of the audience looked to be at least sixty, those sentiments weren’t likely to go down well – good job we found them funny. This scene was fairly lightweight and brittle, but it set us up nicely for the subsequent events.

The wives returned to the house – the action was all set in the Battle’s sitting room – and after shooing the ‘children’ out to play tennis, they got down to some serious gossiping themselves. Margery was bored with her husband, and like the children she kept complaining that he had no sense of humour. This is a standard dramatic device to warn the audience that the person in question probably does have a very good sense of humour, and we’re going to enjoy ourselves enormously when they demonstrate that fact.

It was Alfred’s arrival that started to darken the mood a little, beefing up the humour in the process. He was searching for Charles who had missed an appointment with him earlier, and since the matter was urgent, he found himself explaining to Margery, Patrick and Judy that Charles was in a bit of a hole. A client had shot himself, leaving Charles unable to settle up on the due date (two weeks after purchase or sale) and without support from his friends, Charles would be ‘hammered’ out of the Stock Exchange and his personal fortune would have to be used to clear the debts. Alfred didn’t know if Charles had managed to raise the money or not, and pretty soon they were all fearing the worst. There was some debate as to the significance of Charles leaving the house with his top hat – some held the view that a chap wouldn’t take his top hat with him if he intended to end it all – but the panic and confusion were temporarily resolved when Charles entered, alive and well from the short glimpse we had before the lights went out.

We learned in the post-show that this is a one act play with three scenes. The action is continuous, with the intervals inserted purely to give the audience a rest, and at the start of scenes two and three the author gave us a short reprise of the few moments before the lights went out to get the performance up to speed again – very considerate. Charles’ arrival solved one problem but led to more upsets as he gradually revealed, through a barrage of expostulations and interrogation, what he had been doing and what he had decided.

After the shock of finding that his business might go under, he had time to consider that possibility and realised that it might not be such a bad thing. He had served five years altogether in the army because of the war, and come home to serve another twelve at the Stock Exchange, earning the money to support his family. With the children grown up, he had no affection for them nor they for him, and the love had long gone out of the marriage on both sides. Why should he continue the daily grind for no reward other than the money? There was some reference to the war affecting him, but he didn’t make that his excuse; no, he was simply fed up with doing something he didn’t much care to do simply to keep his wife and children in unnecessary luxury. Even though he’d been able to borrow enough money to clear the outstanding debts, he hadn’t used it and by now he had been ‘hammered’. The family was broke, and he intended to leave them to fend for themselves and make a new life for himself abroad.

Just about everyone had a go at persuading him to change his mind. His wife didn’t feel up to using feminine wiles on him, so Dorothy had a go on her behalf, and when she found that her claims about Margery’s deep love for Charles fell on stony ground, she reverted to type and vamped him on her own account. By the end of her little scene, she appeared to have convinced herself that Charles was actually in love with her, but as she was a married woman, it could go no further and they would have to part! Her daughter hadn’t fallen far from the tree either; as soon as her mother had left the room Diana was in there trying to seduce Charles into taking her with him, as his mistress! She did knock him off his stride for a few moments, but he was quick to turn down her offer and she sulked her way off stage.

Speaking of sulking, Patrick disappeared for most of the second half of the play; we learned from Judy that he was up in his room, feeling depressed and eating butterscotch. He did have a debate with his father before that over whether young people were boring or not, during which he came across as pompous and over-serious, the very things Charles had commented on in the young. Charles also nailed all the points Patrick had been making in the first section of the play, and didn’t seem to mind that his relationship with his children was so distant, although it upset Patrick a lot to find his father didn’t much care for him.

Alfred tried the man-to-man approach, suggesting that Charles had another woman he was leaving the family for, but it was clear that Charles had no other entanglements. Margery was concerned about her reputation as well as the practicalities – i.e. money – and Charles did at least have some good news for her. The practice of a stockbroker handing over all his personal savings and investments was a moral one, not a legal requirement. He had some investments in a US bank, amounting to twenty thousand pounds, and intended to leave her with fifteen thousand and keep five for himself. That would ensure he had enough money to survive on. It would be tough for his family, but he didn’t care one bit. Patrick had been talking about going into politics after he’d been called to the bar (some time in the future), and with the Liberal party being so unpopular (strong laugh) he’d probably join Labour. Charles pointed out that a stint doing proper physical work would serve him better in the Labour party; Patrick still didn’t look impressed.

It was Judy who ended up developing the best relationship with her father. The way he stood up to the rest of them had changed her attitude to him, and she understood that he needed to live his life for himself and get away from his family to do it. She had made a good point much earlier about the war being used as an excuse for everything, and I think she was impressed that he didn’t do that. They were actually able to share something of themselves, albeit briefly, and there was the possibility that if they met in the future they might become good friends, but nothing was promised by either one.

The play ended after Charles’ departure, and there was a warm response to the actors when they took their bows. I had felt that some of the humour didn’t register so well with this audience, and that a different group might have made for a livelier afternoon, but that’s how it goes. There were a number who stayed behind for the post-show, and those of us who did were clearly impressed by the play and performances.

It was interesting to me to see how much I sided with Charles after hearing the rest of his family, and even his friends, criticise him so roundly. They did respect the fact that he went off each day to earn the money, but his lack of a sense of humour made him absolutely unbearable to be with. It wasn’t till Judy spoke with him towards the end of the play that anyone mentioned the possibility that he did have a sense of humour after all; we’d been enjoying it for quite some time.

His description of the process of ‘hammering’ a stockbroker was very well done too. As the clock chimed three, he told us what would be happening on the floor of the Exchange, how the deafening noise would suddenly die down to silence, the flat announcement would be given three times that ‘Mr Charles Battle is no longer able to meet his commitments’, followed by a pause as the other brokers reflected on a fate that could be theirs next time, before the crashing waves of sound poured out again and business continued. At the time we thought this was just an example of what went on; it was only later that he revealed that he had returned home to have some company while the announcement was actually being made at the Stock Exchange. It was the most moving moment of the play.

We were also reminded of a Noel Coward short play (Fumed Oak, from Tonight At 8:30, Chichester August 2006) with a similar theme, and perhaps that influenced us as well. Charles’ actions could certainly seem callous, but the utterly spoiled attitudes of his wife and children, as well as the other characters, were enough to tip the balance. As a contrast to the Battles, Alfred and Dorothy had insisted on their children calling them by their first names, and it was clear that this choice didn’t create good relationships in the family either.

With the contemporary social references, this was an intriguing glimpse into life at that time, and with the next war less than a decade away, some of the comments from the youngsters in particular made me wonder how that generation handled and were affected by World War II? Perhaps there’s a play out there that can tell us.

The set was nicely detailed. From the entrance: there was a central rug with a floral design, a side table on the right with a chess set in mid game, flanked by two upright chairs. Two more curved back chairs stood far right and there was a deco tiled fireplace far left with stools on either side. A sofa in blue damask was on the left with some newspapers lying partly under the sofa, and there was a table on the near side with a part-played game of card solitaire laid out on it; this was moved over to the side before the performance started.

The stools by the fireplace were covered in a geometric patterned cloth; there was a racquet on each one, and on one side there was also a string bag with some tennis balls. Framed photos of Charles in uniform and Julie and Patrick as children adorned the top of the fireplace which was otherwise naked – no fire irons, coal, wood, etc. The chairs were covered in chintz, while one brightly coloured cushion and some gaudy deco pictures on the walls finished off the décor. The opposite corner had a large paned window with curtains, and in front of it stood a carved wooden chest which held the gramophone. French windows in the left corner led out to a paved area with plants in pots and a glimpse of lawn. Nothing was moved during the play for once, which was a relief as there were some tape marks in the corner just in front of us.

© 2013 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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