The Stepmother – Review

Playwright Githa Sowerby had a hard time making her mark in British theatre at the beginning of the twentieth century.

She suffered, the way a lot of writers do, by launching her career with a success – Rutherford and Son – and then struggling to repeat the magic.

Her second, The Stepmother, played just once before languishing in a cupboard for 80 years. Her third was a flop and she became so disillusioned that she never wrote another play.

It is open to speculation whether this happened because she was a woman trying to work, and be accepted, in a man’s world – or whether they just weren’t very good.

The Stepmother now gets a rare airing, opening last night at Chichester Festival Theatre, under the direction of Richard Eyre, and one has to wonder whether it was a good idea to disturb the dust of ages and countless cobwebs.

The Canadians first rescued this forgotten work in 2008 and I wish they’d left well alone.

This overripe melodrama, playing in Chichester’s smaller Minerva Theatre, is so stagey that the ham was dripping off every line and performance.

Most of the preposterous dialogue is so extravagant that I wondered if it was being played for laughs.

There are some genuine nuggets in it, particularly concerning women’s roles in Edwardian society, their subjugation, exploitation and lack of independence, and their reliance on the men in their lives.

Despite a change in the law women still had few rights and many lost their financial assets once they married.

Indeed, in The Stepmother, we see rotter, Eustace Gaydon, marry for an inheritance, which he then loses through poor business deals.

I’m not sure what the acclaimed director, Eyre, was thinking, but Tim Hatley’s set design is ugly and cumbersome, forming a physical barrier between the performers and the audience.

As theatre-goers arrive they are met by an unsightly black screen around the stage which only serves, in its own awkward way, to project a few titles between scenes.

And the first scene is very poorly lit, taking realism too far, and plunges the whole production into a Stygian gloom.

Sowerby’s characters are straight from central casting. Will Keen overacts terribly as delusional fantasist and diabolical bounder Eustace Gaydon, who is just missing a waxed handlebar moustache to make his fiendish, panto villain, personna complete.

The dialogue he is given is extraordinarily pompous and absurd, so much so that it often reduces the audience to guffaws and gasps.

In a couple of scenes Eustace begins shaking uncontrollably and rolling his eyes which simply looks comical rather than dramatic. Do we feel any sympathy for him? Hell, no.

Everyone shouts at each other, whether it is the vapid heroine, Lois (Ophelia Lovibond struggling for any credibility), her roguish husband, Eustace, or her strong-willed stepdaughter, Monica (Eve Ponsonby), or even Lois’s lover and neighbour, Peter (David Bark-Jones).

Even righteous solicitor Mr Bennet (Simon Chandler) and mild-mannered Joanna David, as token support, bellow and roar in their few scenes.

There’s no subelty in this story of a woman used, abused and disgarded by a man who spends a decade conniving and manipulating her.

I could imagine genteel ladies of the time enjoying reading it in some periodical but there isn’t much that recommends it for the stage.

You’d think it would be a forgone conclusion if given the choice between staying with a man she is coldly indifferent to, but thinks she owes everything, and running away with her handsome, caring, passionate, rich, barrister lover.

But no. If only life were so simple.

Ponsonby injects her own passion into playing the feisty Monica but this stodgy museum piece struggles to excite or engage.

A disapointment.

The Stepmother runs in the Minerva Theatre until September 9 .

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