Writer: St John Ervine
Director: David Gilmore
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
“The half-witted heroine has held the stage too long” so writer, war veteran and drama critic St John Ervine determined to do something about it. It may seem like a perennial problem finding good leading female roles, one which our current industry is working to resolve, but Ervine was writing in Edwardian Britain creating Jane Clegg in 1913, now revived at the London’s Finborough Theatre for the first-time in 75-years.
Jane has recently inherited £700 from her uncle and intends to save it so that her two young children can pay their way to a better life, much to her husband’s chagrin. Henry is in debt to a local bookmaker and, discovering his mistress is pregnant, makes a fateful decision at work that brings his family’s world crashing down. But will his frustrated wife help him?
Ervine may be all-but forgotten as a playwright, but his drama of marital mismatch and domestic betrayal fully deserves its Finborough revival. Alex Marker’s beautifully detailed parlour room set creates exactly the right balance between Jane’s neat efficiency and Henry’s weighty sense of suffocation, while placing the characters at the upper end of the working class, just refined enough to suggest the second-generation of a family making their way in the world.
David Gilmore’s production is gripping and carefully controlled, suggesting Ervine’s intriguing drama has earned a place among the great writers of his day. As with Jack Gamble’s very fine production of The Daughter-in-Law last year, Jane Clegg draws on similar themes about a couple whose outlook on life, their very existence together is doomed by the fundamental differences in character and soul – highly Lawrencian themes – while the emotional stultification of a powerful female lead is pure Ibsen, which Gilmore emphasises to great effect here.
What makes this so meaningful is how rounded the leads feel, and while Henry’s behaviour is never excused, we see both people as products of their era; Jane forced to bear her ill-fortune for the sake of her children and chaffing against the expectation that she must legally, morally and connubially defer to the man she married, while Henry fights against the pressures and expectations of pre-war masculinity, to be the provider. The shift in power that Jane’s wealth causes we are repeatedly told “is not natural,” adding a psychological depth to Ervine’s work that Gilmore exploits successfully.
As the heroine, Alix Dunmore’s Jane certainly has all her wits about her, a decent and upstanding woman no longer surprised by her husband’s misdeeds. We join the action long after any affection has evaporated, so Dunmore shows how quietly Jane endures her mother-in-law’s jibes while holding firm to a course of action she knows to be the right one. As further revelations occur, Jane’s reactions are minimal, restrained and mostly withheld, so while Dunmore hints at her humiliation, her demeanour implies relief and inevitability.
Brian Martin’s Henry is altogether a more fiery personality, quick to temper even with his mother whose ardent defence seems to rile him as much as his wife’s placidity. As his quick lies are caught out, Henry’s contrition and fear are interesting to observe in the context of the social role he too must play. You never feel sorry for him – his actions too extreme to warrant pity – but you do understand his feeling of emasculation and dislike of authority that sit beneath his actions.
There is plenty of richly-created detail among the supporting characters with Sidney Livingstone the embodiment of corporate responsibility balancing his compassion for Jane with his own moral integrity. As bookmaker Mr Munce, Matthew Sim has a desperate urgency and just enough menace to suggest the seedy underworld within which Henry is deeply embedded. Maev Alexander stumbles occasionally as Mrs Clegg, slightly overegging the hysterical defensive mother, but her need to blame everyone but herself for her son’s failings says much about the origins of the Clegg family predicament.
The recent rediscovery of Edwardian dramas is proving fruitful for London’s fringe theatres, showing that emotionally, politically and socially the Britain of a century ago was not so very different after all. Most importantly, these plays have fascinating female characters at their centre, one who is awakened to her own agency and drives the drama as Jane Clegg does, ready to face a more self-sufficient life. Thanks to the Finborough’s excellent new production, it certainly won’t be another 75-years until we see this important work again.
Runs until: 18 May 2019 | Image: Carla Evans