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The Stepmother (Susan Elkin reviews)

Chichester Festival Theatre

Minerva theatre

Director: Richard Eyre

Githa Sowerbury’s play – which languished unperformed and forgotten for 80 years after a single performance in 1924 – is a remarkable piece. It’s a balanced, thoughtful and shocking exploration of the patriarchal sexual politics which underpin a home countries marriage – more accessible than, say, Shaw, Ibsen or Chekhov. So outrageous, by modern standards, are some of the assumptions one character expresses about women not understanding business, being unable to manage money and so on that it makes a 2017 first gasp in horror and then laugh in incredulity. And yet this is how it often was for married women after the World War One even though the Married Women’s Property Act passed 40 years earlier in 1882 was meant to protect them.

Eustace Gaydon (Will Keen) marries his late aunt’s young companion (Ophelia Lovibond) in order to get control of his aunt’s legacy. Definitely not a stereotypical stepmother, she becomes close to his children and founds a successful couturier business while he squanders the money on dubious business deals completely unknown to his wife. Integral subplots include the urgent desire of the elder daughter (Eve Posonsby) to marry the solicitor’s son (Samuel Valentine) and the stepmother’s relationship with a barrister friend (David Bark-Jones).

Will Keen is masterly (in a role which might have been written for David Haig). His character is weak and always prevaricating, trying to be calm but quickly succumbing to dangerous, almost violent, outbursts of temper. He’s in the wrong almost all the time but deep in self delusion. Keen is silky with gritted teeth one minute and red-faced and screaming the next. It’s a terrific performance.

Lovibond as the mature business woman – with her sleek 1920s bob – is almost unrecognisable from the terrified teenager initially mourning for the old lady she had cared for. She too gets a great deal of mood subtlety into a role so multifaceted and interesting that I hope this play goes mainstream and gets lots of outings because this really is a peach of a part. We see her as concerned parent, assertive business woman, poised chatelaine, loving mother – and then when everything falls apart, utterly distraught and helpless so that suddenly she seems very young again although there is hope for some sort of happier future at the end as her character re-gathers strength. Bravo.

A big tick for the stage design and costumes (Tim Hatley) too. The playing area of the Minerva is boxed behind a huge black net curtain which evokes the darkness – in every sense – of life in a 1920s house in Surrey when everything is definitely not as it seems and electric light has, at the beginning of the play, yet to be installed. And the clothes, especially the dresses worn by Lovibond and her business assistant Mrs Geddes (Kaye Brown) are stunningly elegant – in ironic contrast to what is actually happening which is anything but.

This review was first published by Sardines


Author information
Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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