Githa Sowerby’s The Stepmother was given a one-off performance in 1924 but has not been seen on a London stage since then. Now the Orange Tree has done what they do best, unearthing the play on one of their regular rummages through the archives and giving it a solid, engaging if slightly stately and stodgy staging.
Sowerby’s best known play, Rutherford and Son, is frequently revived (Northern Broadsides are touring it at the moment) and anthologised, but despite being relatively unknown, The Stepmother reveals itself to be just as interesting a piece of work, full of feminist fury at the way a woman’s fate – and her fortune – can be so easily buffeted about by the whims of men.
Lois, orphaned and alone in the world, has been working as the paid companion to a wealthy spinster; now, following the death of her employer, she stands to inherit a considerable sum. But the dead woman’s grasping brother Eustace Gaydon has no intention of seeing his late sister’s money slide out of his grabby, grubby grasp.
After a rather padded prologue set in 1911, which establishes Lois’ predicament, the play leaps forwards in time by ten years to the 1920s where we discover that Eustace has solved his financial problems by marrying the unfortunate girl. The adult Lois is now a successful business woman, managing her own dressmaking company while also acting as a mother figure to his two young daughters, but despite her evident business acumen, it’s her husband who signs the cheques and has final say in how her money is spent. Sowerby’s anger at this state of affairs pulses through the play – her feckless artist father having squandered both his own fortune as well as his wife’s – and it’s this fire that gives her writing its potency,
The figure of the stepmother, so often maligned – an upsetter of nests and a terroriser of children – is here made engagingly sympathetic. Lois is little more than a child herself when she is made to take the place of a dead wife and mother (one suspects she was given little in the way of a choice in the matter) and the bond between Lois and Eustace’s older daughter Monica is delicately drawn; not dissimilar in age their relationship is one of friendship and empathy at the other’s plight, rare and refreshing in its harmony. When Eustace is at his most badly behaved and caddish, it is to Lois the daughters turn.
There are echoes of Jane Eyre here, but this is a Rochester driven only by self-interest and his own financial mismanagement. Eustace, played by Christopher Ravenscroft – normally such an avuncular Sam Waterstone-y presence – is a proper hissable villain, the kind of man who scoffs “what’s a woman’s word in business?” as he – literally – trousers his wife’s savings. The performances on the whole are as solid and reliable as they usually are at the Orange Tree, all very well-pitched for the intimate space, with Katie McGuinness conveying a suitable mixture of smarts and vulnerability as Lois and Jennifer Higham agreeably wide-eyed and kind-hearted as Monica.
Sowerby’s writing is intriguingly shaded, particularly in regards to the character of Lois, who is far from a one-dimensional victim; her eventual journey into the arms of a lover is also depicted with a refreshing amount of sympathy, an escape route from an intolerable situation – though it’s telling that he also tinkers with her finances behind her back.
Sam Walters’ production is – as ever at this venue – of a certain degree of polish and intelligence, investing the play with tension and a degree of humour too, but its power is diluted somewhat by issues of pacing; the numerous fiddly scene changes – dominated by the interminable shifting of chairs and unfurling of rugs – allow rather too much of Sowerby’s anger to evaporate.