Premiered in the West End in 1895 and unrevived until now, Arthur Wing Pinero's The Notorious Mrs Ebbsmith must have been utterly scandalous in its time.
The Mrs Ebbsmith of the title is a free-spirited woman who desires a new relationship dynamic with Lucas Cleeve, one without the restraints of marriage. Lucas has left his wife and, in the throes of fever, has agreed to Agnes Ebbsmith's "compact". Then he recovers, losing his confidence in his ability to earn a living as a writer, and wanting to return from Italy to his old life as a respected and up-and-coming Tory MP. Spurred on by his interfering relative, the Duke of St Olpherts, Lucas wavers in his commitment to Agnes, as she does in her determination to show women that there is an alternative to marriage and subservience to a husband.
1895 seems a long time ago, but Primavera's production, deftly directed by Abbey Wright, maintains a relevance even when few these days are likely to be scandalised by a Tory MP leaving his wife for another woman. This is all about the relationship power struggle, the puppet-master Duke of St Olpherts (played with a delicious cool restraint and charm by Christopher Ravenscroft) seemingly finding considerable pleasure in manipulating the lives of all those involved.
Rhiannon Sommers gives Agnes a formidable strength of character, even when doubting herself and being swayed by Lucas's reversion to type, as he reveals he wants a pretty, well-dressed woman on his arm rather than a strong-willed, intelligent one. He seems almost delighted when she "swoons", an indication of her basic female weakness and her need to have him look after her.
Agnes's confidante, Gertrude Thorpe, ably portrayed by Julia Goulding, is a widow who lost her only child. She's a tragic figure who struggles to come to terms with Agnes's situation. But she too is forced to confront the reality of the situation and decide whether to continue to support her friend. Sarah Madigan as Nella and Niccolo Curradi as Antonio, the Italian servants, add a bright comedic note, and Richard Beanland is solid as Gertrude's brother, the Reverend Amos Winterfield.
The Notorious Mrs Ebbsmith can't have the same impact it had more than a century ago. But it still has something to say about marriage, even in the twenty-first century. Well done to Primavera and Jermyn Street for reviving this largely forgotten piece of theatre.