What’s in a name? An awful lot, a life, a past: to have a name is to exist, to be recognised. Mary Broome has worked as a housemaid for the prosperous Timbrell family for years, yet they only have cause to ask her surname when it transpires, on the eve of a family wedding, that their younger son Leonard has got her ‘in trouble.’ Suddenly the Timbrells are forced to see her as a person rather than as a part of the furniture, a speck in their peripheral vision. Later the family congratulate themselves on letting another housemaid hang on to her ‘awful’ given name of Beryl rather than insisting she change it to something more palatable.
It says much about both playwright and play that Allan Monkhouse chose to use Mary’s name as his title. Monkhouse, a critic and literary editor for the Manchester Guardian as well as a socially minded playwright who had several plays staged at Manchester’s Gaiety Theatre, was clearly very interested in the interplay between the servant class and their employers. He was also interested in intergenerational relationships and this play, first staged in 1911, is as much about the gulf in attitude and understanding between young Leonard Timbrell and his father as it is about Mary.
The couple are obliged to marry and do a good job of coping with the situation until Leonard’s runaway tongue causes his father to cut off their allowance entirely. While Mary grows ever anxious over money and the health of their child, Leonard lounges around and vaguely considers pawning his pocket watch. A sub-Wildean aesthete lacking only the lily in his lapel, he was a source of torment and confusion to his rather Victorian father even before this latest indiscretion. Though he’s perceptive, expressive, and quite unlike his stuffy elder brother, he is also, as he confesses, quite ‘rotten with egoism’ and is capable of being just as blind and cruel as his father when he chooses. At times his aestheticism feels like a defence for idleness (he’s a writer, but there’s no real sense that he’s particularly gifted) and the whole situation like an amusing adventure, while Mary’s whole life and sense of herself has been uprooted.
The situation also seems to awaken something in Leonard’s cowed mother. Though she repeatedly and rather too vocally insists on her own weakness in the face of her husband’s bluster, she also confesses that she believes that there’s “something in what these suffrage people say.”
Jack Farthing manages to convey the conflicting aspects of Leonard’s personality; he is charismatic and honest yet oddly hollow and casual in his cruelty, quite astonishingly unlikeable at times. He views everything at a remove, barely acknowledges his son, but seems – briefly at least – saddened by his inability to feel anything more deeply than he does. Katie McGuinness has an apt placidity as Mary, a woman used to accepting the various hands that life has dealt her, but who is also quite unshakeable when she sets her mind to a thing. Eunice Roberts also gives an intriguingly shaded performance as Mrs Timbrell, a woman who – at times at least – seems far more questing and aware than others of her generation, but whose love for her son blinds her to his faults.
Monkhouse’s play sets its stall deftly. The situation and characters are elegantly established and while it’s not as socially probing as a play by someone like Granville-Barker, it remains a strong piece of comic writing with a conscience and would probably have been considered rather daring in its day. But the play loses steam by the second half and his portrait of Leonard and Mary’s life together is less convincing. The final scene sees everything tied up rather too quickly and neatly (when one learns that Mary has been stepping out with the Jonsonianly monikered milkman George Truefitt it’s not that hard to guess how things will end up for her) and there’s only the lightest sense that anyone has learned anything, Mary excepted, from this unfortunate episode.
Auriol Smith’s production is pleasingly pacey for a revival of an Edwardian play and this despite some lengthy scene changes. That the furniture is shifted and the cushions plumped by women in housemaids’ attire does serve as a neat reminder of how these people’s lives were oiled and their homes made comfortable by the labour of others, but these interludes also serve to slow down and break up the flow of the drama.