Maverick Irish playwright, St John Ervine didn’t shirk the tough issues when he put pen to paper.
Unmarried mothers, sectarianism and the suffrage movement were all featured in his work. He courted controversy and, for a time, was as famous as other social commentators like Bernard Shaw and HG Wells.
Yet 100 years later he’s been forgotten, nothing more than a footnote from the Edwardian era.
Thankfully Herts academic Andrew Maunder recently rediscovered Ervine’s 1913 controversial gem, Jane Clegg, and brought it out of mothballs.
It hasn’t been seen in London for 75 years but audiences at the Finborough Theatre are being thrilled by its compelling storytelling in a sizzling revival.
There’s usually a good reason why a play has been gathering dust for decades but, after sitting enthralled by this pertinent and timely melodrama, I can’t understand why this has been overlooked for so long.
It’s hard to believe Jane is a product of the Edwardian era. Bold, fearless and courageous, she behaves very much like a modern, independent woman, who fights back when she realises that she’s married to ‘an absolute rotter’.
Until 1870 a woman surrendered all her assets, financial or property, to her husband on marriage.
Jane Clegg has inherited a small fortune from a relative and she’s determined to keep hold of it to provide a future for her two children.
But her husband, Henry, is old fashioned. He is increasingly resentful, particularly when Jane refuses to let him near the cash. His demands for the money are constantly rebuffed.
After 12 years of marriage Jane is jaded and disillusioned. The man she married is a gambler, womaniser and ne’er-do-well, who leaves her at home with his mother while he’s out running up colossal debts.
His besotted mother will forgive him anything, but Jane is getting to the end of her tether.
“He married me under false pretences,” she complains. “I give him everything and he isn’t faithful!”
One day the quick-tempered salesman returns home to find that one of his clients has accidentally settled their bill to him rather than the company he works for.
And, when his bookmaker turns up demanding that he pays his tab, the desperate and cash-strapped Irishman takes the only way out.
“I’m in a rare old mess,” he tells his wife. “I’m not a bad chap. I’m just weak.” (Cue loud guffaw in astonishment from the audience)
In period dramas we expect strong, heroic male protagonists and weak, simpering, subservient wives.
But Brian Martin whips up the anger of an entire audience with his outrageous behaviour as Henry. At my performance he was lucky to get out in one piece.
Henry is spineless, selfish and an inveterate liar. He just can’t help himself. It takes your breath away listening to him trying to wheedle out of one jam after another. His audacity knows no bounds.
There are fine performances from the entire ensemble in this gripping tale, but especially from Brian Martin and Alix Dunmore as Jane.
Dunmore gives a powerful, understated performance as the wronged wife.
She’s a powder keg waiting to explode, torn between her loyalty as a wife and her duty as a mother.
But she is burdened with dull, repetitive dialogue and actions. There’s only so many times she can serve up dinner, darn socks and send the kids off to bed.
However, Jane’s guts and determination to escape from an abusive marriage, provides a valuable lesson for women today.
Veteran stage and screen actor Sidney Livingstone is particularly good as Henry’s boss, company cashier Mr Morrison, who does his best to help.
Another winner from the always reliable Finborough.
Jane Clegg runs at the Finborough Theatre until May 18.
This thrilling, lost Suffragette play gives a valuable lesson to women today with compelling turns from Brian Martin and Alix Dunmore as Henry & Jane Clegg.