The Stepmother, Orange Tree, Richmond

 

For Northern Broadsides, Jonathan Miller has just revived Githa Sowerby's best play, Rutherford and Son, which caused a sensation when it opened at the Royal Court in 1912.

Coincidentally, in what amounts to an ad hoc mini-retrospective, the ever-enterprising Sam Walters has directed the UK professional premiere of The Stepmother, which had only one private performance in 1924 before Sowerby's small dramatic output lapsed into neglect.  It's no newly discovered masterpiece but, in Walters' astute and deeply involving production, it emerges as a powerfully indignant protest at the ways in which the growing spirit of female independence could run horribly foul of unreconstructed assumptions about a man's right to control the family finances.

The first act is set in 1911 and the widowed, caddish Eustace is hoping that a legacy from his sister will wipe out the ruinous debts from his evidently shady business dealings.  But she leaves everything to Lois, her naïve, penniless 19 year old companion.

Eustace deviously offers the girl a home and a job as the governess to his two young daughters, leaving her awash with exploitable gratitude, before her before she learns of her good fortune. The play then leaps to 1921. Lois is married to Eustace and smoking too much as she struggles to balance the demands of home and a thriving dress-making business in town. What she does not yet realise is that her husband, to whom she fatally gave the power of attorney, has squandered all her original capital on his dodgy schemes. 

The play tightens the screws in a manner reminiscent of A Doll's House, the key difference being that, in Ibsen's complex drama, it is Nora's guilty but deeply understandable secrets that are brought to light. Here Katie McGuinness's excellent Lois reels (and the audience gasps in almost gratified incredulity) at the gradually revealed perfidies of Christopher Ravenscroft's hissably shameless villain. 

This is far too black-and-white. Where the play genuinely scores is in subverting the stereotype about stepmothers. Beautifully handled by this well-acted production, there's a deep bond of love and trust between Lois and Eustace's daughters. It becomes achingly apparent that she longs for Monica (Jennifer Higham) to have the happy marriage that was denied to her.

In trying to bring this about with the son of one of Eustace's enemies (who demands a hefty settlement), she lays herself open to emotional blackmail about her one rather desperate amatory lapse and to further financial exploitation. Recommended.

To 9 March; 0208 940 3633

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