The Stepmother review – marriage, morals and misdemeanours

The Stepmother review – marriage, morals and misdemeanours

Minerva, Chichester
Injustice, inequality, power and passion drive the plot of this remarkable play which still rings horribly true a century after it was written

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “The Stepmother review – marriage, morals and misdemeanours” was written by Michael Billington, for theguardian.com on Sunday 20th August 2017 14.41 UTC

Githa Sowerby’s remarkable 1924 play was rediscovered by Canada’s Shaw festival in 2008 and by Richmond’s Orange Tree theatre in 2013. As Richard Eyre’s superb revival confirms, it deserves a permanent place in the repertory, since it shows women confronting grotesque financial inequalities in a way that still rings horribly true.

Sowerby, best known for Rutherford and Son (1912), writes with a power and precision about social injustice. We first meet her heroine, Lois, when she is a gauche 19-year-old who has inherited a small fortune from an elderly companion. Ten years later we discover Lois married to her benefactor’s brother, Eustace, who is a fraudulent speculator chiefly interested in her money. By now, aside from being stepmother to Eustace’s teenage daughters, Lois is supporting the family by running her own fashion business. When, however, Lois demands the return of her original capital to finance a dowry for one of her stepdaughters, she is confronted by the depths of Eustace’s chicanery and by her own legal powerlessness.

Money, as much as passion, spins the plot. Shocking as it is to hear the useless Eustace tell Lois “what’s mine is yours” and to realise he has covertly mortgaged their property, what really hits one is the way the dice were loaded against women in every way. Abused and exploited by her husband, Lois briefly seeks consolation in the arms of an adoring neighbour. The unscrupulous Eustace shamelessly exploits this fact and suggests that his wife’s extramarital fling far outweighs, in the moral scheme of things, his own financial misdemeanours. It is a revealing insight into the deviousness of Anglo-Saxon puritanism.

Will Keen catches all of Eustace’s palpable shiftiness but is a touch too villainous for my taste: rather than bring out the character’s weakness, he suggests Shakespeare’s Iago relocated to a Surrey drawing-room. Ophelia Lovibond, however, perfectly conveys Lois’s growth from a shy, nervous teenager into a self-confident woman who finds her attempted independence thwarted by a loaded legal system. David Bark-Jones as her secret lover, Eve Ponsonby as her marriageable stepdaughter and Simon Chandler as an upright solicitor provide impeccable support, but the real delight lies in seeing the restoration of a knotty problem-play that demolishes the myth that British drama between the war was an exclusively male affair.

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