Following on from their production of Githa Sowerby’s The Stepmother and featuring several of the same actors, the Orange Tree presents another play about a female breadwinner in the dressmaking industry and the resentments that such power inflicts on the status quo and the male ego. G.B. Stern was a prolific playwright, novelist and journalist between the 1920s-60s and her 1931 play The Man Who Pays the Piper has been dusted off with an engaging and light-handed staging (except for the fussy scene changes) by Helen Leblique in fine Orange Tree style. In spite of the top-heavy structure with a first half that lasts close to two hours and a number of contrivances in the plotting, it’s a delicately observed genre painting of a play illustrating a woman’s place between 1913-26 and the struggle for one enterprising individual to find her own identity after being liberated by the war and then branded ‘unnatural’ and ‘unsexed’ by men unsettled by an independent woman.
In a 1913-set prologue, Daryll Fairley, the headstrong eighteen-year-old daughter of a doctor, drifts home after her curfew dancing the tango and feeling liberated, potent and sensuous (all things her father would prefer she wasn’t in public). Filled with talk of a brave new world of suffragettes and bachelor girls in flats, she proclaims herself desperate to “be of use”. To her indulgent but staunchly traditional father’s (Christopher Ravenscroft) mind, learning dressmaking is an accomplishment to keep her occupied until she finds a husband; the thought of middle-class women earning their own living is not the done thing – and, if necessary, the paterfamilias can always use money as a weapon to keep his daughters in their place.
Upon the death of her father and elder brother in the war, such subversion proves providential as Daryll, now a senior partner in a top fashion house, is the only one who can keep the family in the manner to which they are accustomed. A farcical tone is adopted as the family prepare to break the news of Mrs Fairley’s (Julia Watson) marriage to Benny (amusingly played by Stuart Fox), an unemployed double bassist (strangely, nothing is made of the class difference) to the ‘lord and master’. This development is met with benevolence; it’s the smaller domestic niggles that show the head of the household at her most lordly.
The cast convey a convincing familial rapport and each member is recognisable in spite of not having a great deal to work with. Jennifer Higham and Emily Tucker reprise their sister act, with Tucker giving a suitably capricious performance as naughty little sister Fay. A pleasure-seeking post-war girl unbothered about being cushioned by other people’s money and who wants all the comforts of living in the family home without any of the responsibilities, their interview directly echoes Daryll’s earlier confrontation with Daddy, with Fay’s self-interested reasoning far less convincing that her older sister’s was.
At the centre of the play is the multi-facented ‘Daryll the Magnificent’ (imbued with strength by Deirdre Mullins), whom we see a heroine, a tyrant and a victim of misogyny. Her male relations claim not to have anything against her personally, but don’t like ‘it’: the way in which she presides over family events and foots the bill (albeit as tactfully as possible). Resolutely single and rejecting her long-term admirer Rufus’s (Simon Harrison) proposals until an unexpected legacy relieves her of supporting her mother and siblings, she demands that he “breaks” her and turns her into a “usual kind of wife”.
The Stepmother showcased British naturalism’s debt to Ibsen and Stern’s play also reflects his influence, most clearly at the end when Darryl can no longer stand a mind-numbing life of leisure and, believing herself to have been turned into a ‘freak’ made unfit for marriage by the war, announces she is leaving her husband. Rufus’s proposition of swapping roles seems remarkably radical until it turns out to be a charade in order to test his wife’s feminine instincts. Perhaps it was foolish to have been taken in by it, but a denouement in which such a capable woman has to simper to get what she wants suggests a compromise of a rather uneasy kind.