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 The Theatreguide.London Review


The Madras House
Orange Tree Theatre Autumn 2006

This marvellous little suburban theatre proves once again what a national treasure it is with a crystalline, engrossing and entertaining revival of Harley Granville Barker's sprawling 1910 drama of ideas, a monster of a play which, as far as I know, hasn't been attempted anywhere since the National Theatre in 1977.

Director Sam Walters has trimmed and tamed the beast, and his intimate in-the-round staging at the Orange Tree keeps it human-sized and humanely involving throughout.

Granville Barker's themes are the social position of women and the relations between the sexes, and his mode is to examine a different aspect of the issues in each of the play's four acts, using an affluent family who own a pair of women's wear shops as a hub.

In Act One we see the six adult daughters of one branch of the family condemned to a perpetual adolescence by the useless education they have been given and their mother's Victorian authority. Act Two takes us into the stores to look at the stulted lives of shop clerks of both genders forced by economy to live in the company dormitories and held to impossible standards of celibate propriety.

The third act shows the businessmen considering the dress styles they're selling, ironically copied from the modes of Parisian whores, and forced by the family black sheep to ask for the first time whether they're exalting or degrading their wives and daughters. And in the last act the central figure and his wife debate whether all the middle class virtues and graces they've inherited and internalised might be cowardly evasions of the real facts and moral obligations of life.

That may all sound terribly earnest and dreary and, indeed, Granville Barker's script does occasionally stop dead for theoretical debate in the Shavian mode. Let it be said that at his best, he's almost as good at that as Shaw, lacking only the master's epigrammatic wit, though a line like 'You are all idolaters of women, and they are the slaves of your idolatry' isn't bad.

But Sam Walters has edited the text skilfully, cutting away much of the abstract debate, particularly in the first half, and letting the dramatic situations speak for themselves. We don't need to be told what's wrong with those six young ladies' lives in Act One, for example, when the actresses show us how unhappy and full of near-frantic sexual frustration they are. And when Walters does give the playwright's debates fuller scope in the second half, we have become involved in the human dramas and thus ready to consider their implications.

The trimmed text (which still runs three hours) also lets us appreciate the subtleties and ambiguities of Granville Barker's debate. That black sheep who challenges complacency in the third act, for example, is not necessarily more enlightened than the others - his objection to the feminisation of the culture is that it corrupts what he considers true manliness - but the fact that the right questions can be raised for the wrong reasons keeps the scene dramatically alive.

As usual director Walters draws strong performances from his entire cast. As the one figure who walks through every setting, Timothy Watson carries a mask of moral authority that we are only gradually allowed to peep behind as he and we both discover his uncertainties.

Almost everyone else is limited to a single strong scene or cameo, with Jacqueline King doubling as the imperious mother of Act One and a self-righteous workers'-dorm chaperone in Act Two, Octavia Walters as a disconcertingly independent shopgirl, Richard Durden as the black sheep, and John Chancer as an American businessman less callow than even he might realise, particularly standing out along with a couple of fine comic turns by David Antrobus doubling as a henpecked husband and a flamboyant dress designer.

Richmond is only 20 minutes from Waterloo Station, and not much longer by Underground - a short journey for such a thoroughly satisfying evening of theatre.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Madras House - Orange Tree 2006