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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
To paraphrase the Player Queen's "the lady doth protest too much," in Hamlet, Leonard, Mary Broome's pivotal character, does indeed protest too much when he insists that he's not like the things he does. He's charming and witty and more literary than the members of his bourgeois family. But he's a sponger who shamelessly relies on an allowance from his industrious dad to indulge a dilettantish life style. What's more, he's done the familys eponymous maid wrong and legitimizes her baby only because his outraged father will otherwise cut him off.
Before you accuse me of spoiling a major plot point, not guilty! Playwright Allan Monkhouse establishes the upstairs-downstairs liaison between the Timbrell family's profligate son and the pretty maid who succumbed to his charms. minutes into the opening act.
The 1911 play is not so much a romance, shades of Lady Mary and the chauffeur in Downton Abbey, as a comic but quite dark exploration of a society on the brink of a world war and the suffrage movement. The backstairs liaison of Leonard (Roderick Hall) and Mary (Janie Brookshire) may well be the only human relationship anyone in the Timbrell household has had with her, but Monkhouse uses its not unexpected consequences as the trigger to allow him to focus his plot around the period's prevailing master/servant relationships and the expectations successful businessmen like Edward Timbrell (Graeme Malcolm) towards their sons.
Hill's Leonard isn't quite as flamboyant as Oscar Wilde, but he does personify the sort of Wildean wit that makes him the cynosure of any scene. He also lands some of the play's funniest lines. His putdowns of his family are amusing. He's quite a charmer, especially when compared to his conformist brother Edgar (Rod Brogan) and boorish father. But Leonard is no hero. His intelligence and savoir fair is wasted on a do-nothing existence as an occasional scribbler, who'd rather sponge on the father he disdains, than find a way to turn all his clever talk into a meaningful, self-supporting existence.
Leonard turns out to have s more in common with the post world war II angry young men than Wilde. Like John Osborne's Jimmy Porter, who was funny and smart but not at all lovable. Witty surface charm goes just so far in the face of Leonard's flippant, arrogant ways. The charm fades in the light of his willingness to duck out on the pregnant Mary and later in the play go off after his own pleasure leaving her to deal with their seriously ill infant. Though he freely admits that he's a sponger without substance but is clearly unwilling to do anything about it. As our London critic Lizzie Loveridge said when she reviewed another production last year "underneath the humour there is no doubt that this young man is a snake and we despise his morality or lack of it."
The dark underside of this comedy isn't limited to its anti-hero. Giving the title of his play to Mary, was the author's way of exposing the suffering caused by the class system prevailing in England's northern capital of Manchester where Monkhouse lived and worked as a journalist (as well as a novelist and member of what became known as the Manchester School of playwrights). It was a society where maidservants impregnated by an employer or employer's son were not uncommon,. As Lizzie Loveridge pointed out "many gave birth in secret attributing their growth in size to the dropsy, the babies were left to die or farmed out to be cared for in often less than adequate homes. Others, the lucky ones, would marry a lower class man who would be paid an incentive to relieve the employing family of embarrassment but rarely did the father of the child, even if he were unmarried, marry the maid."
What differentiates Leonard's father from other affluent men of commerce is that he 's willing to have his son marry Mary— in fact, he's so eager for this to happen that he offers the young couple £300 a year. But while the senior Timbrell isn't a bad man, he is less motivated by decency and kindness than using the pregnancy as a chance to be rid of the useless dilettante son he declares as never having been "one of us."
Neither Edgar, the son who does fit the family mold, Sheila (Julie Jesneck) his proper wife-to-be, or his sister Ada (Katie Fabel), are particularly sympethetic characters. They are typical representatives of their age group and class.
Monkhouse doesn't spare the working class either. He creates a decidedly unsentimental picture Mary's parents (Douglas Rees and Jill Tanner who also do double duty as upper class friends of the Timbrells). Mr. Broome, especially (played by Peter Cormican instead of Douglas Rees at the performance I attended), is perfectly happy to have his daughter to be supported by her in-laws.
With all these characters to scratch from your list of sympathetic characters, It remains up to Mary Broome to live up to her name and occupation and sweep up top honors in the likeability department. And as played by Janie Brookshire, she does and then some. She's honest enough to admit that she is as much responsible for her dilemma as Leonard. But being a simple girl, unable to get much of Leonard's high falluting talk, she's clear-eyed enough to realize that rare as Timbrell Senior's offer to support a marriage is, his son "no great catch." She agrees to the marriage but ultimately she makes her own way and comes off as a precursor to the sort of new women who would have choices in terms of work and marriage.
The one other sympathetic character and the one who projects the strongest emotions is Mrs. Timbrell (Kristin Griffith). When we first meet her she is a traditional middle-class matron who has allowed her needs as a woman to get lost during a lifetime of wifely and motherly devotion. However, she proves her mettle as a woman of considerable strength by lending strong support to Mary, she recognizes and takes her own small step towards being able to live as a woman and not just a wife and mother.
The plot takes us from the unsettling revelation about Mary's pregnancy to the forced marriage and the inevitable complications. Except for Mary, and to some extent Mrs. Mrs. Timbrell , no one really seems to have been deeply affected by what initially promised to be cataclysmic. Consequently, despite Mr. Bank's brisk direction, Roderick Hill's outstanding portrayal of an at once delightful and caddish character, Brookshire's delightful Mary and splendid performances all around — the first scene's bombshell fizzles into a somewhat too neat finale. Fortunately though the play is old-fashioned, its humor still resonates.
The production values are outstanding. Set designer Roger Hanna has managed to achieve the shifts between the senior Timbrell's bright elegantly furnished home and Leonard and Mary's more modest rented quarters on a single set. He does so by moving the furniture and rotating the numerous framed portraits. Lighting designer Nicole Pearce cleverly puts the spotlight on a mother and child painting to indicate that Mary's baby has arrived. Some of these scene changes, especially the last one, are distractingly long and cumbersome but I suppose this can't be helped in a small theater like this where revolving and sliding scenery is impossible. Martha Hallys costumes are aptly elegant and authentically Edwardian.
For more details about the Manchester Group and another take on this play, you might want to check out our our review of the 2011production.
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