Mary Goes First, Orange Tree Theatre, London

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The Independent Culture

It's not quite true that the dilemma of Henry Arthur Jones's 1913 comedy is no longer of interest. A titled lady whom I once asked why she had not taken her husband's name answered: "Because an earl's daughter goes in before the wife of a baronet." But even those suffering the cruel custom of ordering every woman's social rank on the way to the dining room may not enjoy smugness and snobbery passed off as satire and charm.

"Our own Mary", whose husband owns a factory in a Northern town, is miffed at having to go in to dinner after the wife of a newly created knight, a lady whose spangled frock and blond wig make her a ringer for Carol Channing in Hello, Dolly! (The titled couple are so vulgar that they actually – unlike the other Northerners in the play – have Northern accents.) Mary's comment that her rival looks like "an impropriety" (quick! the smelling salts!) starts a suit for slander, but she comes up with a dashing counter-attack – running her helpless husband for Parliament, though he must change from Tory to Liberal. "I shall have to give up my club," moans the poor old boy, "and all my friends." She also soaks him for a stiff contribution to the party, in exchange for a better title than knight. There are plenty of lines at which one is clearly expected to titter, but nothing resembling wit, and much that is distasteful – Mary's husband begs her, on his knees, to accept a Rolls-Royce rather than pay a long visit to Aunt Henrietta (i.e. deny him sex).

Director Auriol Smith must have thought that the topic of honours for sale was bang up to date, but the playwright, as her stilted production shows, finds such transactions as endearing as he does Mary. To be in correct, if nauseating, period style for this role, its actress should be a cloud of fluffy disingenuousness, with a bag of ostensibly adorable tricks. Susie Trayling, though, is blank-faced, cool, and direct, her businesslike demeanour accenting Mary's selfishness and spite. The older men in the cast are as stiff as Jones's exposition ("You're a leading London physician," one character tells another), save for Michael Lumsden's deft and energetic performance as Mary's better half. Even he, however, cannot reconcile me to the heartfelt plea he makes twice, voicing the cosy complacency of playwright and intended audience: "We're not in this world very long. Do let us be happy! Do let us be comfortable!" To this voice from the nursery, one might reply, Fine, let Us. But what about Them?

To 31 January (020-8940 3633)

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