Director Sam Walters’s production of The Stepmother at Richmond’s Orange Tree Theatre is no fairytale, but it is charming.
There is no evil power-hungry woman who marries the loving, vulnerable widower, then promptly goes about getting rid of his children. She is, in fact, the good guy.
It’s 1911 and young naïve Lois Relph, played by Katie McGuinness, is taken in by widower and constant failure at get-rich-quick schemes, Eustace Gaydon, but only after he discovers his dead sister has left her a moderate fortune.
Ten years later Lois, now Mrs Gaydon, owns a thriving dressmaking business, while Eustace is still a failure living off his wife’s ‘hobby’. The children have grown into young ladies and we suspect there may be more to a casual friendship between Lois and Peter, the handsome barrister next door.
Written in 1924 by Githa Sowerby, the play speaks of female independence and the changing role of the woman at home and in business.
Julia Watson’s character, dear old Aunt Charlotte, shows us what a ‘good woman’ in society should do (instead of marrying she devoted her life to her ill elderly mother). She continually criticises Lois for working long hours and improperly managing her household.
Lois is every bit the modern woman – not just for her time – and McGuinness brings both relevance and purpose to her performance.
Eustace, played by Christopher Ravenscroft, is the most appalling self-serving man whose sheer audacity makes you laugh when you know you shouldn’t. More than once I wanted to walk out on stage to give him a good smack upside the head.
The arena-style stage and physical closeness of the audience to the simple, yet effective set made me feel like a portrait hanging on a wall where I witnessed a decade of secrets, intimacies and bitter arguments.
This is a play written by a woman, about women, and at a time when women rarely had a voice. As a woman watching the play with all of rights and freedoms Lois did not have, I could not help but feel a sense of girl power (yes, I said it) and pride as the lights went down on the newly-empowered Gaydon girls.