Looting the past
Michael Billington explores two 1920s revivals that are long on thoughtful-ness and short on froth and praises a reprisal of a Joe Orton classic
WE make glib assumptions about the past. If I use the phrase ‘theatre of the 1920s’, it probably conjures up an image of elegantly clad figures being insouciantly witty in upper-class drawing rooms. This was the decade of Somerset Maugham and Nöel Coward, but it was also that of powerful work by George Bernard Shaw and Sean O’casey. Two revivals of neglected plays confirm that the decade wasn’t all cocktails and laughter.
To mark the 150th anniversary of John Galsworthy’s birth, signally ignored elsewhere, the invaluable Finborough Theatre in London’s Earl’s Court has revived Windows, a little-known play of his from 1922.
Checking up on Galsworthy’s theatrical career, I read in one book that he was ‘a pillar of dramatic conservatism’, however, although Windows abides by the rules of the traditional well-made play, it strikes me as daring and progressive in its choice of theme: suggesting idealism is not much use unless it’s driven by love.
The action is set in the Highgate home of novelist Geoffrey March, who believes in doing good to others, a principle put to the test when his window cleaner asks him to employ his daughter, Faith, who’s spent two years in prison for accidentally smothering her illegitimate baby. With the exception of March’s wife, the family is all for taking her on, but when young Johnny March, a war-weary poet, is found furtively kissing the new parlourmaid, the family starts to question the decision.
The play has its oddities. The window cleaner, quoting Hegel and Nietzsche, is straight out of a play by Shaw and the windows become an over-used symbol. However, Galsworthy had a fierce sense of injustice and lays into a legal system that saw Faith almost hanged for murder.
Galsworthy nails the coldness of a charity that springs more from the head than the heart. Geoffrey Beevers’s production elicits first-rate performances from David Shelley and Carolyn Backhouse as the married Marches and Vincent and Charlotte Brimble (father and daughter in real life) as the window cleaner and Faith.
By one of those coincidences that make theatre so fascinating, the Minerva in Chichester has also revived a little-known play from the same period, Githa Sowerby’s The Stepmother. Dating from 1924, it was aired at the Orange Tree, Richmond, four years ago, but it clearly deserves to become part of the national repertory. It describes a world in which women had little control over money that was rightfully theirs, where men could mortgage property without telling their wives and in which, to obtain a divorce, women had to prove aggravated adultery by their partner.
This is anything but a dry thesis play, however—sowerby’s characters are palpably real. The heroine, Lois, develops from a shy ladies’ companion into the abused wife of a dodgy financier, Eus-
Back in fashion: Orton, Sowerbury and Galsworthy’s comments on society are being revived to great effect
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