JWR Articles: Live Event - The Stepmother (Director: Jackie Maxwell) - May 25, 2008
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The Stepmother

4.5 4.5

The joy of selective memory

Three cheers to Jackie Maxwell for brilliantly resurrecting Githa Sowerby’s tale of avarice, adultery and feigned affection. The plight of women at the hands of men masquerading as their protectors is somewhat uneven and at times heavy handed in the script, but exaggeration to drive home a point is no stranger to the toolbox of the playwright.

As Eustace Gaydon, the spineless villain of the piece, Blair Williams easily creeps under the skin as he bilks his happily oblivious Aunt Charlotte (played with a marvellous “Alzheimeric” tone by Jennifer Phipps) only to be trounced from his sister’s will in the Prologue (it seems she was the only female of the Gaydon clan to appreciate her sibling’s conniving greed). Instead of her flesh-and-blood brother her considerable estate is left in its entirety to Lois Relph: governess/tutor to her nieces Monica (Marla McLean) and Betty (Robin Evan Willis). In a masterful slice of irony, it falls to Mr. Bennet (Guy Bannerman revels in the chance to exact his own pound of flesh), the former family solicitor—sacked by Eustace—to deliver the sobering news that £30,000 would not be coming to replenish his ex-client’s near-empty till.

But all is not lost: with a twinkle in his eye and a financial hard-on for his withering accounts, the wily disinherited bro weds the beneficiary and, like his long-suffering Auntie, secures the power of attorney over what—according to his sense of fair play—should have come to him in the first place.

A decade later, the Gaydon household is at various states of excitement/enthusiasm over the year-long engagement of Monica to Bennet’s too-poor-to-marry-on-his-salary son, Cyril (Jesse Martyn is appropriately debonair and earnest but unwittingly perpetuates his chauvinistic heritage delivering lines like “When you belong to me” and “Come over here!” to his intended). Is there no hope at all? The deliriously in-love couple’s marriage hinges on the size of “settlement” (previously known as dowry) that the Gaydons can provide to the Bennets.

By now, money should be the least of the family-of-the-bride’s worries. After ten years of putting his considerable investment skills (Eustace has the Midas touch—just ask him) in the service of his wife’s principal, to come up with £10,000 should just be a matter of timing the sale. What’s more, Lois has gone into business as an upscale dressmaker. Yet again Eustace’s business acumen came to the fore, buying the shop’s premises for a very reasonable sum and giving it to his grateful wife free and clear. Well, er, it was in fact Lois’ cash that was used and her deal-making husband immediately—if secretly—mortgaged the property to next-door neighbour Peter Holland (Patrick Galligan) so as to finance his own can’t-fail ventures and club fees. Nothing irregular here, for after all, it’s all “family money” once the knot has been tied.

As time goes on, Lois cottons on to the fact that her fortune may not be secure. So she slaves away at her own enterprise, smokes too much to help her frayed nerves and takes on Holland as her lover—in part to provide comfort and companionship while her spendthrift frigid husband takes extended business trips in search of the next sure-fire opportunity.

In short, no one’s perfect in Sowerby’s world including herself. While wanting to paint the picture of the financial, moral and societal abuse heaped on the orphan turned caregiver turned entrepreneur and mother, the notion that Lois could be completely oblivious to her husband’s slide into bankruptcy rings false: both are too clever for that.

With that reservation aside, Maxwell has challenged the troupe to look deep into themselves and let their feelings and emotions ebb and flow as the action unfolds. Particularly effective are the many moments of grand silence that pack more wallop than much of the dialogue; their collective timing is impeccable and courageous (silence in the theatre is only slightly more dangerous than on radio).

Another adroit Maxwell touch is the employment of Philip Glass’ deceptively simplistic arpeggiated piano tracks (Minimal Piano Collection, Volume I: Jeroen van Veen’s touch, tone and sense of flow make him the ideal interpreter) to flood the ear with naïve warmth even as Camellia Koo’s flower-themed set morphs seamlessly from place to place.

As all events conspire to force everyone in the room—on both sides of the footlights—to examine the state of their scruples and motives when dealing with “loved” ones, Sowerby’s deft understanding of why we frequently fall on the crutch of selective memory in order to survive life’s unbearable moments enters the collective consciousness with both relief and despair. JWR

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