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 The Theatreguide.London Review


The Skin Game
Orange Tree Theatre Spring 2007

John Galsworthy's 1920 drama is the sort of play you might expect a novelist to write - driven by theme and character, a bit wordy and over-explicit in spelling out its ideas, but so richly textured that you are drawn into its reality.

The title is a period figure of speech suggesting bare-knuckle fighting, or taking the gloves off - that is, getting down and dirty - and the play is about just how long its supposedly cultured and gentlemanly characters are prepared to fight fair when their battle becomes desperate.

The battle is old money v. new, in a situation that suggests Chekhov's Cherry Orchard reset in the English squirarchy. A country family who can trace their history back to the Tudors are horrified by a nouveau-riche businessman moving into the county and, even worse, setting up a factory on his land. And he in turn is offended by their snootiness.

So when he gets a chance to buy and build on a plot of land right at their front door, it is not just business that motivates him. And it is not just losing the view they assume as their right that upsets them, but also his very presence.

And if appealing to his higher instincts doesn't work, are they prepared to stoop to the threat of exposing a scandal in his family? And if they do, and they win, then just what is left of the class superiority they were fighting for?

That's good stuff, and like the best dramatists of his generation, Galsworthy can turn what is essentially a thesis into living drama. The play is talky, and repeatedly goes on longer than it has to after making its points. But the characters are more than just mouthpieces, and their emotional stakes in the issues are made real and moving.

Geoffrey Beevers plays the squire as a decent man whose constitutional inability to take the gloves off makes him as ineffectual as Chekhov's Ranevskys, so that it is left to his harder-edged wife to play dirty, and Lynn Farleigh lets us see the woman damning herself in the process.

Clive Francis shows us all the businessman's crudity and vicious anger while also making clear that, if handled better, he could have compromised. A supporting cast of Orange Tree regulars includes Richard Hollis, Miriam Hughes and Charity Reindorp.

Sam Walters directs with his usual sensitivity to the material and skill at making it come alive in this attractive suburban theatre-in-the-round.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - The Skin Game - Orange Tree 2007