With Peter Gill's splendid revival of The Voysey Inheritance, some theatregoers believed that the National had disinterred an equally splendid Edwardian playwright. Alas, any who visit The Madras House will find that Harley Granville Barker's talent for the theatre was outweighed by his liberal self-satisfaction.
Three-and-a-quarter hours long, this gabfest has less plot than a toothpaste commercial. An American is keen to buy the titular fashion firm, but this provokes no drama - two of the directors are of retirement age and the third, young Philip, feels he ought to be saving his pure white soul. He is only too pleased to leave the grubby world of commerce for that of... politics. One might happily anticipate this little creep's comeuppance if there weren't, at that point, only about 10 minutes of running time left. Otherwise the play is a leisurely debate on Modern Woman: What Is It?
Rather than shocking his audiences, Granville Barker merely paddled about in polite titillation, then retreated to convention, dressed up as worldly wisdom. Though female independence is praised in theory, the two templates we see are not encouraging: a love-starved spinster and a pregnant shopgirl who plans to bring up her child alone. Opposing female freedom is Philip's father, a philanderer who has gone to live in Arabia. Father, son and the American all agree, however, that women love clothes and should have plenty of 'em. Surely a ground on which courtesan, matron and suffragette can happily meet - and if that isn't enough, there's a fashion show. But it will take more than three models in lampshades to reconcile any thinking woman to this play.
Sam Walters's ponderous production and Timothy Watson's bloodless performance take Philip at his own valuation, but Jacqueline King is dependably amusing in the roles of matriarch and moral vigilante, as is John Chancer, playing the American.
Connoisseurs of Edwardian smut will perk up at one husband's complaint that women have made him spend "enough to build a battleship". Thus was Lillie Langtry upbraided for her expenses, to which her response was, "Yes, and you've spent enough in me to float one."
To 14 October (020-8940 3633; www.orangetree theatre.co.uk)Reuse content