Any daughters or sons who have come under the tyranny of a mother’s crafting their matrimonial bliss must plan to spend a week at Deynham Abbey—the Cassilis country home in Leicestershire (conveniently relocated to the Court House Theatre until October).
Over the span of four compact acts, playwright St. John Hankin’s knowing wit and sage understanding of the hollowness of England’s upper class shrewdly morphs from light comedy to heart-wrenching tragedy as he chronicles the engagement of common “Towner” Ethel Borridge (Trish Lindstrom) to the Cassilis estate’s only-child-and-heir, Geoffrey (David Leyshon). Their made-in-London romance, when transplanted to the earth-tone hue and abundant French windows of designer William Schmuck’s warm rendering of living life large, rocks, rolls and unravels with relative intervention (discreet and direct, as the case may be).
Mother Cassilis (Goldie Semple, convincingly cool and calculating) can’t abide her son’s choice—the just-in-time daughter of an alcoholic bookmaker. Mother Borridge (done to a tee by Mary Haney) thinks she’s died and gone to aristocratic ‘eaven at the prospect of her youngest child (an older sister lost to scandal but camouflaged by a name change) becoming respectable and secure. Let the games begin!
Hankin deftly populates his work with a range of characters that can be manipulated to drive home his barbs with pithy dialogue, looks that speak libraries (much less volumes) and slight gestures whose sum further underscores his points. He could have no finer ally than Christopher Newton whose subtly understated direction allows the comic-drama to find its way into the consciousness of the audience members, letting them decide “what he meant by that.” Instructively, on the Father’s Day performance, those assembled reveled in the obvious yuks (“When you’re married you can look down on people. That’s what every woman wants.”), but seemed uncertain whether Mrs. Borridge’s obvious desperation was just another gag or a moment of societal pathos.
Offering their advice (frequently unwanted but what else could the idle rich manage to chat about?) are the Countess of Remenham (Donna Belleville does a first-rate job of loudly out-busying the busybodies), Mrs. Herries (a small role filled with deft bits of business by Wendy Thatcher) and Lady Marchmont (Laurie Paton) who doesn’t require much prompting to collude with her manipulative sister. Accordingly, Mrs. Cassilis befriends her prospective daughter-in-law with fake camaraderie and devotion that must have been learned at a politician’s knee. Her sibling’s task is to “entertain” the near-penniless matriarch whose name so descriptively rhymes with the most common of breakfasts. Marvellously, that is the meal which Lady Marchmont forsakes so as to start her day in the much better company of herself.
The men are in short supply. Reverend Hildebrand Herries (Lorne Kennedy, suffering the role well) endures the other spelling of his surname with accustomed acceptance of his place in Hankin’s world of women. After intermission, the pace and hilarity pick up considerably with Patrick Galligan’s portrayal of Major Warrington—a diligent bachelor who immediately spots the imposters in the pretenders around him (both lovers and their “caring” families) and is not above considering an offer from Ethel to escape to France and drill holes in the sand.
Gluing together this confection of madness and mayhem is sweet music. The cello and piano strains from the fabulously named Camargo Mozart Guarnieri’s “Dansa Brasiliera” add zest, panache and glissandis between the scenes. Newton takes those energizing bars a step further as, aided and abetted by the on-stage household staff (Al Kozlik, the stoic, insightful butler—don’t miss the first donning of the Tilley hat; footmen Ken James Stewart and newcomer-to-Shaw Gray Powell, functionally assisted by Krista Colosimo as the Maid), who perform a ballet with furniture, props and tablecloths reassembling the sets just in time for a bow with the double bar. Stagecraft doesn’t get much better than this.
Yet it’s the battle of the classes waged on the unlikely field of an after-dinner musicale that provides the most richly layered pillory of the pretension of high art seen or heard in decades. Lurking in the wings is Lady Mabel Venning (Charlotte Gowdy). Everyone’s assumed that Geoffrey would be marrying his childhood friend (and social equal) except the extra-innocent groom-to-be. To prove one more time what a mistake he’s making, Mabel is forced to the pianoforte to offer two verses of a Schubertesque art song. With a voice that could peel paint, the room goes respectfully quiet—most in feigned admiration—Mrs. Borridge being the incredibly funny exception. At every turn and wispy phrase, her face reveals what most are thinking. It’s a splendid irony that it takes the ear of a cockney, failed woman to hear that the Princess is tone deaf. All that could improve the visual satire would be an especially pained grimace (as your reporter experienced on both stanzas) at the highest note of the tune.
Social commentary par excellence, without a scrap of dialogue needed to bring it home.
Enjoy your visit to this exceptional tour de farce! JWR