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.

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The Charity That Began At Home – January 2012

7/10

By St. John Hankin

Directed by Auriol Smith

Venue: Orange Tree Theatre

Date: Thursday 12th January 2012

This was an enjoyable drawing-room comedy set in Edwardian England, showing the effects of good intentions gone too far. Lady Denison has invited an odd assortment of ‘difficult’ people to her country mansion for a few weeks’ stay. There’s General Bonsor, who could bore for Britain; Mrs Horrocks, ditto and with social pretensions to boot; Mr Firket, an unctuous little man who keeps trying to sell things to Lady Denison – a billiard table, a car, etc. – all the while promising large discounts from the regular price; Miss Triggs, a German governess (that’s a governess who teaches German) with a pronounced forward stoop and brusque manner; and Mr Verreker, an orphan who’s estranged from his uncle and whose departure from the army is as yet unexplained. Along with these we have Mr Hylton, whose views on the need to extend charity to those we don’t like have led Lady Denison to invite these people down, and Mrs Eversleigh, Lady Denison’s sister-in-law, whose forthright, practical and somewhat judgemental views counterpoint Mr Hylton’s perfectly. Add in Margery, Lady Denison’s daughter who is even more focused on helping others than her mother, and Soames, a butler whose lack of references led to Lady Denison hiring him, and you have all the ingredients necessary for an almost Wildean comedy of manners.

We got our first explanation of Lady Denison’s unusual invitation policy when she had a conversation with her sister-in-law shortly after she arrived. Mrs Eversleigh wasn’t impressed by what she heard, and was scornful of Mr Hylton and his ideas until she found out that he was actually well off, with a house in the country, and before you know it she decided that Lady Denison was simply going along with these crazy but relatively harmless notions in order to snare Mr Hylton as a husband for Margery, a plan of which she thoroughly approved. Lady Denison protested her innocence in vain; Mrs Eversleigh was very impressed by her tactical astuteness in the marriage stakes.

If we ignore William’s attempt to give her ladyship his notice shortly before tea, the first cracks in this perfection began to appear when Lady Denison’s maid, Anson, confessed off stage to being with child, the culprit (i.e. father) being Soames. Lady Denison naturally wanted her sister in law’s help to decide what to do, but she also wanted Mr Hylton’s views as well; she was finding this constant philanthropy difficult to keep up. She also wanted Anson to stop sniffling, and eventually sent her out of the room so she could sniffle elsewhere. Soames was relatively unrepentant, though he was happy to marry Anson if he could; sadly he was already married, so no solution there. Hylton was all for giving the man another chance, while Mrs Eversleigh was adamant that he should go (Anson could go back to her mother’s, apparently), and so the final decision was up to Lady Denison, who hated making decisions. Finally, she remembered the importance of charity and Soames stayed. I forget what happened to change this, perhaps the cook planning to give her notice, but the first half ended with Lady Denison changing her mind and deciding to dismiss Soames.

The next crack was a bit larger, and rocked even Mr Hylton to his core. It started with some news from the General about Mr Verreker, which he had learned from an old friend of his, a colonel in Verreker’s old regiment. Apparently Verreker misappropriated some of the mess money, and when his botched attempt to cover it up came to light, he was forced to resign. The way the General delivered this information was priceless. Move over, Polonius, and make room for a real windbag. It was lovely the way the general kept drifting off the point into irrelevant connections – who was married to whom, what year it was, etc. Lady Denison kept bringing him back to the point and we got the information eventually, but we also had a lot of laughs along the way.

Just as this information came to light, Margery and Mr Verreker arrived back in the drawing room. They’d been out for a walk with Miss Triggs and Mrs Horrocks, but Verreker had twisted his ankle, poor dear, and so Margery helped him back to the house. I’m assuming it was clear to everyone watching that this ‘twisted ankle’ was on a par with many footballing injuries, which appear to cause great suffering at the time, but can be recovered from in a split second if need be. The real bombshell was about to be dropped; Margery couldn’t wait to tell her mother the good news – she and Hugh (Verreker) were engaged!

For once, even Mr Hylton was against the engagement. His affection for Margery, clearly unexpressed, led him to argue fiercely that Verreker was not good enough for Margery, and Mrs Eversleigh had the unusual experience of agreeing with him. Lady Denison was suddenly decisive for once, and also insisted that Margery call off the engagement at once. But Margery was adamant; after all, she’d been brought up to believe that there’s nothing more important in life than helping others, so naturally she sees marriage as a way of helping some unfortunate man to improve himself. There would be no point in her marrying a good man, as he wouldn’t need the help she can give. And she already knows all about Verreker’s army experience – he cunningly told her all about it earlier, so that she would know the worst about him. To benefit the rest of us, he goes over his story again, and when he stood up to do this, Steve reckoned Margery looked at him a bit strangely, as if she couldn’t quite understand where his limp had gone.

Verreker’s version of his story naturally put him in a better light, but even so, Lady Denison was still keen to prevent the engagement. Hylton had changed his mind, though; he was back to his charitable ways and now supported the engagement, apologising for his rudeness earlier. With his backing, Lady Denison gave grudging consent, and as peace appeared to be breaking out, Mrs Eversleigh attempted to throw a spanner in the works by revealing to Verreker the real reason for his, and the others’ invitation to the house. He was very amused by it all, but unfortunately he decided to tell the General about it, to get back at him for grassing him up. As he explained the charitable philosophy behind the visitors’ invitations, he failed to notice Mrs Horrocks and Miss Triggs coming into the room behind him, and so they also found out the cruel truth – that they were invited not because they were wanted, but because they weren’t! (Mr Firket had already left, I assume, as I hadn’t seen him in this scene at all.)

Naturally these folk all left by the next train, so there were only five people left for dinner, and this was where the set was changed (see below). Verreker talked a lot in this scene, mainly about the tiring day he’s had helping Margery with her good works. There was a short power cut during which the candles came in very handy, and we learned that the chap in charge of the new-fangled generator was another of the lame ducks, prone to drinking. He’d improved, apparently, and soon the lights came back on – very helpful.

After the ladies left the men alone, they had a frank conversation about Margery and the likely future for Verreker and her after their marriage. Verreker had begun to realise what life with Margery would be like, and actually did the most charitable act of the whole play – he asked Margery to break off their engagement, as it would be miserable for the pair of them in a very short time. His comments about unhappy marriages were very perceptive, and again some of the ideas expressed seemed very modern in approach, but we’re used to being ‘surprised’ by Victorian and earlier works. Margery was a stubborn girl, for all her sweetness, but finally she had to agree to Verreker’s request. It was a difficult thing for her to understand, because despite her earnest desire to help others she really had very little understanding of other people’s lives. With Verreker confessing that he was actually only concerned for her, as he knew that he’d be alright regardless, the play ended, and we were able to show our appreciation.

With such a large cast, I found my view was blocked more than usual at the Orange Tree, but they really couldn’t help it. I was still able to follow the various reactions, and get much of the humour, and although it was a very gentle satire on posh do-gooders, there were a lot of funny lines, well delivered. The casual cruelty of the upper classes towards their servants – telling Anson to stop sniffling, for example – was contrasted with the declared intention to make the world a happier place, and the unintended consequences of their actions made for a good deal of the humour. The performances were excellent, as usual, and I found myself thinking about the situation a lot on the trip home, with more ideas and connections coming up all the time. It’s nice to find such an apparently gentle play has so much to it.

The set for the drawing room (first three scenes) consisted of ornate furniture on all sides; sofa, chairs, side tables and a plush rug in the middle of the floor. There were Wedgwood-style panels above three of the regular entrances and a horsy picture above the main entrance. The two regular entrances on the far side had been blocked off with seats, and two doorways, complete with fancy swags and muslin drapes, stood square on to the stage. There were two clusters of wall lights on the side panels on the opposite diagonal to the main entrance. On one of the tables sat a basket with some crochet in it – nice blue wool – and I did spot a bell push on one of the posts by the main entrance.

The dining room setting for the final scene was on a similar basis, with a central table, five chairs, a sideboard, another serving table, two large candles and the remnants of the final course. The real joy was in the way they changed the set over. I’ve commented on the way the Orange Tree do this sort of thing before (Chains); today we saw the servants come on and remove the sitting room furnishings that were no longer needed and replace them with the dining room necessaries. Several of them were played by cast members who had played guests in the earlier scenes – the cook had been Mrs Horrocks, while the housekeeper had been the governess – and they each brought a touch of character to the process. I felt like applauding at the end of it, but they were quickly into the scene itself, so we didn’t.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Mary Broome – April 2011

8/10

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

Chains – December 2007

8/10

By: Elizabeth Baker

Directed by: Auriol Smith

Venue: Orange Tree Theatre

Date: Saturday 15th December 2007

This was our first trip to the Orange Tree, and everything about it was enjoyable. The theatre itself is small but beautifully formed, has nice loos, and a civilised cup of tea at the start helped a lot. I noticed a sign about post-show discussions after every Thursday matinee, so that will be something to look forward to on our next visit.

The play was written in 1909, and gives a good account of life at that time for those at the bottom of the white collar employment ladder – the clerks. Supposedly in safe, well-paying jobs, they were being worked like machines (quill-drivers), and just as much at risk of losing their jobs as anyone nowadays. Or if they kept their job, it was only by accepting a salary cut.

We get to see the different opinions and choices made by a group of people in this category. Charley Wilson is a clerk with the usual far-off “prospects”, married to Lily. To make ends meet they have a lodger, Fred Tenant (bit obvious, that). Lily has a sister, Maggie, and a brother, Percy, both of whom look set to be married. Her parents, Alfred and Mrs Massey (honest, that’s what she’s called in the program), also appear after the interval, and there’s a neighbour, Morton Leslie, a big hulk of a man who keeps insisting on climbing over the wall and wreaking havoc on Charley’s garden every time, to sounds of clanging and clattering off stage.

The action starts as Charley and Fred arrive back after their Saturday (Saturday!) stint in the office, and Fred tells Charley he’s off to Australia to make a better life for himself. This is unsettling news for both husband and wife. Lily’s more concerned about getting another lodger; in fact she suggests to Charley later that they could get two lodgers, if he clears his plant cuttings out of the small bedroom. Charley’s upset because he also wants to break free from the chains of office life, and over the course of Saturday and Sunday he decides to make the break. The final revelation on Monday morning stops him in his tracks, and we see him taking on the burden of a monotonous life of drudgery in order to support his family. I’m still not sure whether Lily knows she’s won a sort of victory at the end, or whether her serenity, bordering on smugness, is just due to her natural good temper.

The set and the auditorium were as one. Intimate doesn’t fully describe the closeness. It looked like we’d invaded someone’s living room, put in the audience seats and audience, and let them carry on with their lives. The far wall had wallpaper and pictures on it, behind the audience, and people in the front row were centimetres from the action, if that. Mind you, the whole performance space was less than ten metres square, so cosiness is a given.

The first two acts and the last were in the same room – Charley and Lily’s living room – while act three, after the interval, was in Lily’s parent’s sitting room. The set was changed during the interval, and I was wondering how they’d change it back for the final scene. Different covers had been put on the settee and comfy chair, the fire, carpet and tables had all been moved, and it took a while. The actual change was a lovely piece of staging. Col Farrell, playing Mr Massey, stayed in character, while the other actors became stage hands and started moving all the furniture back in a very organised way. Mr Massey obviously wanted to carry on reading his paper and smoking his pipe, but kept being moved on by the others. Eventually, he sits in a wooden chair, thinking he’s done, and his wife comes along and snatches the paper away. By this time, the set has been completely changed, and he looks around in amazement, realises he’s in the wrong house, and scuttles off. Beautifully done.

All the performances were excellent. Amy Noble, as Lily, was in her first professional role, and carried it off remarkably well. Octavia Walters played Lily’s sister Maggie with a lot of spirit; she’s the one who supports Fred’s plans to go to Australia and helps to fuel Charley’s enthusiasm for a new life. Col Farrell was very good in a small role as Lily’s father, kind hearted but seeing no need for change, and Justin Avoth as Charley Wilson held it all together well. His difficulties in making up his mind were the central issue in the play, and we get to see a slice of Edwardian life that I hadn’t known about before. I found it a very well-written and interesting play, and a very good production.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me