What Every Woman Knows
Finborough Theatre Summer 2010
J. M. Barrie's delightful comic fable is given as sensitive and rightly-tuned a production as you could ask for in this staging by the new Coracle company, making for a thoroughly entertaining evening.
Barrie has been out of fashion for some time, his gentle humour a bit too fey for some tastes. But What Every Woman Knows has some surprisingly sharp ironic edges to it, all of which director Louise Hill and her cast find and happily display, generating shocks of recognition and frequent out-loud laughs among the gentler chuckles.
A Scots family contract to underwrite the education of a poor student on the condition that at the end he marry their spinster sister.
She offers to let him off the hook, but his honour makes him hold up his end of the deal, even as he succeeds in business, goes into politics, enters Parliament and becomes a rising star in his party, accepting her as an inescapable burden.
Of course, he doesn't realise that she is quietly oiling the way for him, ghost-writing his speeches, making modest suggestions that he thinks are his own ideas, even stage-managing his pathetic attempt at infidelity.
It isn't until the very last moments of the play that he comes to see what every woman knows, that behind every great man . . . .
And of course we see it all along the way, allowing for the fun not only of appreciating her strength and cleverness but of watching his blind egotism as it rides toward the inevitable fall.
It's almost a foolproof comic structure, except that it is also very fragile, and in less expert and sensitive hands all sorts of things could have gone wrong (She could seem too devious and manipulative, he could come across as too vain or stupid to be worth the trouble, etc.).
That none of them do, that we happily ride along with the fable, confident that all will work out in the end, is a tribute not only to Barrie's comic skill, but to the director and actors.
Madeleine Worrall lets us see the core of iron and sharp intelligence beneath her character's mousy exterior, even if no one else onstage can. The woman is clearly always thinking, always several steps ahead of everyone else, so we greet every twist of plot with the anticipation of how she will cope with it.
Gareth Glen masters the very delicate tightrope of making the husband a vain, totally un-self-aware stick while still showing us that there is something there worthy of his wife's efforts and devotion, something in the man for us to admire and wish a happy ending for, even as we are laughing at him.
Anne-Marie Piazza nicely humanises the Tempting Other Woman, keeping her from being just a plot device, and Carmen Rodriguez adds some tastily acid touches as an amused worldly-wise observer.
The only thing that is less than completely delightful about this experience is something that regular visitors to this tiny above-a-pub theatre will know too well - its summertime temperatures reach sauna levels. They're in the midst of a fundraising campaign to pay for air conditioning – please donate.
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Review of What Every Woman Knows - Finborough Theatre 2010