The Man Who Pays The Piper, Orange Tree, Richmond
Female breadwinners are the focus of the first two thirds of Orange Tree's wonderfully well-integrated winter/spring season of freshly unearthed inter-war plays by women. The venue has just scored a notable hit with The Stepmother, Githa Sowerby's 1924 which shows how even a young woman running a successful dressmaking business can nonetheless be swindled of her fortune because of the still-prevalent prejudice that it was the husband who should control the family finances.
And now another successful female entrepreneur in the fashion industry is at the heart of Helen Leblique's sparkling revival of The Man Who Plays The Piper, a shrewd and delightful (if somewhat flabby) 1931 comedy by G B Stern, a forgotten figure who, in her heyday, was both a prolific novelist and a West End playwright.
We first see Daryll (played with a delectable wit and acumen by Deirdre Mullins) in a prologue set in 1913. Just back after midnight, excited and emboldened from dancing the Argentinian tango with a suitor, she's an 18 year old would-be Suffragette who twits, with a lovely gaiety and sense of mischief, her starchy doctor-father who demands that she abide by his curfew as long as she remains his financial dependent – a status to which she will be tied until marriage, if he has anything to do with it.
There's then a jump to 1926. We gather that the father and the eldest son perished in the Great War and that Daryll is supporting a clan of ten as the head of a London fashion house. It's typical of the play's charming sense of fun that we learn this through the dotty consternation of her mother (Julia Watson) who is bracing herself to tell Daryll of her recent imprudent marriage to an out-of-work Cockney double bass player (an amusingly useless Stuart Fox). The play asks whether, regardless of gender, the controller of the family purse is bound to become an autocrat. Daryll is exercised by this question as she watches herself adopt with her hedonistic flapper sister a position very like that of her father towards her. The piece pursues this issue into the matrimonial bond when a legacy to her mother frees our heroine to marry her long-time suitor (Simon Harrison).
There's often too little narrative impetus but the problems the piece raises are still pertinent and the sponging family are a Richmal Crompton-like comic delight. Asked, post-Varsity, what his plans are Alan Morrissey's cheerfully idle Frank improvises in panic: “Aeroplanes, pickes, or the Gold Coast”. “Oh Frankie, not pickles.”
To 13 April; 020 8940 363
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