THEATRE / A fashion statement: Paul Taylor on Harley Granville Barker's The Madras House at the Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh

THE usually dogsbody work of scene-shifting becomes a prominent feature of Peter James's cleverly conceived production of The Madras House - much the best contribution so far to Edinburgh's Granville Barker retrospective. At the start, you are confronted with the sight of mannequins unfreezing in illuminated shop windows and descending to become a line-up of petticoated, corseted young women who embark on circus tricks. At the end of each act, these semi-undressed figures re- emerge like half-joky, half-baleful spectres, and set about humping the scenery on and off in a frankly disgruntled manner, at one point even converting the activity into a contemptuous send-up of an erotic display.

Scarcely the sort of thing you would expect from a drama written in 1909, and indeed there is nothing like it in Barker's stage directions. The idea works well, though - not simply because the play deals, in part, with the fashion industry's exploitation of women. Worrying at the topic of women's economic dependence on men from a number of angles, this proto-feminist drama strains to go beyond the mahoganied confines of Edwardian realism. Its four acts are strikingly unpropelled by plot (in the first, the protagonist, Philip, declares his intention of leaving the family drapery business for worthy drudgery at the London County Council; in the last, he confirms this decision). Instead, they present conversational variations on a theme, and offer a look at different layers of oppressed female society.

Impressively, James loosens the play's metaphorical corsets even further. He dispenses with period clutter and gives the hero's oddly picaresque progress through the different echelons of society a spooky, dream-like quality: the same set of actresses crops up in new roles in each segment, doubling too as the scene-shifters. This subliminal effect of recurrence helps highlight the cross- class parallels, say, between the six unmarried daughters of the prosperous draper Huxtable, who are declining into a middle age of rigid respectability, still leashed to their father's ungenerous purse strings; and the closely monitored sales assistants in his drapery firm, who are forced to live in and conceal that they are married if they want to keep their jobs. Well might Philip's father, Constantine, a convert to Muhammadanism who now lives in an Arab village, refer to the clothing industry as 'an industrial seraglio'.

'Europe in its attitude towards women is mad,' contends this revenant, whose superior, silkily insinuating manner is well conveyed by John Hallam. At the fashion show in the third act his adopted cultural perspective allows him to cut through many of the western hypocrisies towards women represented with affable, near-obliviousness by the burly American businessman State (Bill Bailey, spot on). This character sees no contradiction in the male-run garment trade capitalising on the Woman's Movement and any future economic independence. To his rhapsodic way of thinking, conducted mostly on the High Ground, the link with them would be strongly philanthropic. There is a pointedly comic moment when State suddenly realises that his spoutings have detained one of the poor models. All conventional politesse, another man rushes to get her a chair. 'Thank you . . . but she can't,' hisses the camp manager, 'not in that corset.' The play emphasises, though, how Constantine's alternative to this society is more loathsome: polygamy and the relegation of women to veiled perpetuators of the race.

Roger Allam brings out well the sexless, kindly priggishness of Philip, another of Barker's 'worms', though his performance comes unstuck a bit in the awkward last act discussion with his wife (Eve Matheson), which Barker extensively revised for a 1925 revival. This production opts for the 1910 text. A line from the revision, where the wife says 'but you can't think for us', pinpoints a slight source of audience discomfiture with the play. It is crusadingly feminist, but, at times, it gives a faintly Philip-like impression of delivering a well-meaning, yet smug lecture to the ladies on how to liberate themselves. Here, too, James's subversive chorus of female scene-shifters is useful, their mocking presence piercing through any pomposity.

'The Madras House' continues until Saturday at the Royal Lyceum Theatre (Booking: 031-225 5756).

(Photograph omitted)

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
    Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

    Fifa corruption arrests

    All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
    Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

    The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

    In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

    Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
    Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

    How Stephen Mangan got his range

    Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor
    The ZX Spectrum has been crowd-funded back into play - with some 21st-century tweaks

    The ZX Spectrum is back

    The ZX Spectrum was the original - and for some players, still the best. David Crookes meets the fans who've kept the games' flames lit
    Grace of Monaco film panned: even the screenwriter pours scorn on biopic starring Nicole Kidman

    Even the screenwriter pours scorn on Grace of Monaco biopic

    The critics had a field day after last year's premiere, but the savaging goes on
    Menstrual Hygiene Day: The strange ideas people used to believe about periods

    Menstrual Hygiene Day: The strange ideas people once had about periods

    If one was missed, vomiting blood was seen as a viable alternative
    The best work perks: From free travel cards to making dreams come true (really)

    The quirks of work perks

    From free travel cards to making dreams come true (really)
    Is bridge the latest twee pastime to get hip?

    Is bridge becoming hip?

    The number of young players has trebled in the past year. Gillian Orr discovers if this old game has new tricks
    Long author-lists on research papers are threatening the academic work system

    The rise of 'hyperauthorship'

    Now that academic papers are written by thousands (yes, thousands) of contributors, it's getting hard to tell workers from shirkers
    The rise of Lego Clubs: How toys are helping children struggling with social interaction to build better relationships

    The rise of Lego Clubs

    How toys are helping children struggling with social interaction to build better relationships
    5 best running glasses

    On your marks: 5 best running glasses

    Whether you’re pounding pavements, parks or hill passes, keep your eyes protected in all weathers
    Joe Root: 'Ben Stokes gives everything – he’s rubbing off on us all'

    'Ben Stokes gives everything – he’s rubbing off on us all'

    Joe Root says the England dressing room is a happy place again – and Stokes is the catalyst
    Raif Badawi: Wife pleads for fresh EU help as Saudi blogger's health worsens

    Please save my husband

    As the health of blogger Raif Badawi worsens in prison, his wife urges EU governments to put pressure on the Saudi Arabian royal family to allow her husband to join his family in Canada