Writer: Githa Sowerby
Director: Richard Eyre
Reviewer: David Jobson
Playwright Githa Sowerby was seen as a woman ahead of her time, writing searing plays and novels attacking patriarchal society. It is clear from Richard Eyre’s production of The Stepmother, a play that has languished until recently, how prevalent her feminist ideals were when she wrote this play in 1924, even if the execution is heavy handed at times.
From first impressions, the play appears to be a brooding domestic thriller thanks to Tim Hatley’s design. There is a sense of entrapment as the black scrim walls surrounding the stage rise to reveal the house of Mr Eustace Gaydon.
Deep in financial difficulties, he is shocked to hear that his late sister’s £30,000 has gone to her young companion, Lois Relph. Towering over the frightened young lady, he manipulates her to comply with his every desire.
Jump ten years and it is revealed that Lois has become wife and stepmother to Eustace and his two daughters. He appears to have given her financial independence with her own dress making business, except that the £30,000 bequeathed to her is now held jointly, but uneasily, between them.
This play has the air of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House but it lacks the finesse. It follows Lois as she attempts to negotiate the eldest daughter’s proposed marriage, promising to give a large sum of her own money as a dowry to the couple. However, the audience can have little doubt as to what has happened to that large sum.
The play lacks shades of grey in its portrayal of this fraught family drama with its inevitably explosive boiling point. This is no more apparent than in the shamelessly spendthrift character of Eustace. Granted Will Keen excels in portraying this weasel of a man, but he is undeniably a two-dimensional villain at best.
Thankfully, the women are given more rounded characters, especially Lois. Olivia Lovibond transforms from a frightened little girl in the first scene to a determined woman with a sound business mind as she haggles for her daughter’s future.
At the same time she has an increasing sense of entrapment as the pressures of managing a business, a family, and her husband’s affairs builds. Sadly for this critic, as Lois’ anguish reaches breaking point in the second act, Lovibond’s acting did feel stiff and limited.
Still, the love for her two step-daughters was tender, and there is a touching performance from Eve Ponsonby as the eldest, Monica, anxious for her parents to agree over the dowry. A capricious one, but watching her in the middle of this growing strife between their parents is disheartening to watch.
It’s moments like these that could have made Sowerby’s biting portrayal of the treatment of women a century ago compelling.
Aside from the main plot, there are some solid performances including Simon Chandler as the principled solicitor, Bennet, who can see through Eustace’s lies. He adamantly fights against the proposed marriage between Monica and his son, Cyril, played with diligence by Samuel Valentine.
Director Richard Eyre has delivered a robust production of a heavy-handed play. while there are touches of depth to be found in Githa Sowerby’s female characters, its condemnation of patriarchal society’s treatment towards them is predictably unremarkable.
Runs until 9 September 2017 | Image: Catherine Ashmore