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 The Theatreguide.London Review

The Stepmother
Orange Tree Theatre  February-March 2013

Once again this admirable suburban theatre has put the National Theatre to shame by searching among lost and forgotten plays of the early Twentieth Century to rediscover a small gem. 

The heroine of Githa Sowerby's 1924 drama is not the evil witch of fairy tales, but a warm, strong and resilient woman adored by her stepdaughters, successful in business, and abused and stolen from by her shady-businessman husband.

In the course of the play she grows from fragile orphan to survivor, repeatedly surprising herself as well as us with her reserves of determination and commitment to her family. 

The play operates almost entirely within the domestic realm, with only passing reference to the laws and social conventions that restrict women, and yet it is in its quiet way a far more successful feminist statement than a more strident tract could be. 

It is also engrossing drama, full perhaps even overfull of incident and subplot. Along with the heroine's slow discovery of her husband's perfidy are a family friend openly in love with her, the exhausting work of running and potentially losing her business, one stepdaughter's desire to marry a lad whose father opposes the match, a maiden aunt who disapproves of everything on principle, and the husband's shocking and increasingly pathetic attempts to shift all guilt for his failures onto others. 

Sam Walters directs with his usual high sensitivity to the period and characterisations and subtle guidance to his actors, so that every aspect of the production rings true. 

Even the tiniest detail of Katy Mills' design, like replacing the pullcord to summon the maid with an electric buzzer to indicate the passage of time, contributes to the solid reality of the world we are immersed in and, as is frequently the case at the Orange Tree, the tightly choreographed set changes are a delight in themselves. 

Over the years Walters has built up a sort of de facto repertory company at the Orange Tree, and most of the current cast are familiar faces. Katie McGuinness makes the title character first and foremost a loving maternal figure, and lets us see how all her other strengths build on that, so that even when she is driven to despair or forced to be cool and calculating she never loses our sympathy and admiration. 

Christopher Ravenscroft never allows the husband to become a stock villain even as he plumbs new depths of sliminess, by letting us understand the particular kind of moral weakling who must always convince himself that he's the innocent. Jennifer Higham as the would-be bride, Stuart Fox as the disapproving potential in-law and Christopher Naylor as the admirer also register strongly. 

Fast trains get you from Waterloo to Richmond in under 20 minutes, and once again the Orange Tree makes the journey worth it.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - The Stepmother - Orange Tree Theatre 2013  

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