Githa Sowerby's best known play, Rutherford and Son, is revived this week by Northern Broadsides, but one of her later titles, The Stepmother, given one private performance in 1924, and not seen in London since, is no less deserving of another look.
Although we think of Sowerby as an Edwardian writer, her stepmother heroine in this play, Lois Relph, is a thoroughly modern woman in a world where her independence as a governess and dressmaker is undermined in marriage by financial secrecy and condescension.
Her husband, initially her employer, Eustace Gaydon, proves a thorough-going rotter, arranging a mortgage on her business without her knowledge, before blaming her for the mess that ensues. And of course, the little woman must be the weaker party: “You had a headache, and were getting jumpy.”
Sam Walters' leisurely but rewarding production starts with a prologue in 1911 with an ailing old aunt (Julia Watson), a dispute over a will and a marriage of convenience; the subsequent three acts jump to 1921, with dishonesty poisoning the marriage, and Eustace’s daughters caught up in the consequences.
Kate McGuinness as Lois, practical yet vulnerable, presents a tragic case of domestic muddle; her righteousness is slightly undermined by an affair, but the richness of the writing shows how that only comes about because of good intentions in family matters.
Christopher Ravenscroft plays Eustace, the villain of the piece, with a face forever creased in surprise and insincerity, like a nasty scroll of parchment. In the second act marital shindig he virtually elicits pantomime hisses with his accusation of Lois being unable to “keep the personal out of business.”
But of course he remains a deeply plausible character, despite all our knowing, “isn’t he awful?” tut-tuts. Human nature being what it is, husbands can still lose all their money, and their wife’s, and vice versa; Sowerby writes about this from a personal, pained perspective (her father, a landscape gardener and art glass designer, was known as someone who managed to lose three fortunes).
No plays about money are ever uninteresting, and this one deserves its place back on the shelf alongside Harley Granville-Barker and John Galsworthy. It’s not all that funny, but it is deeply felt. Pitching in with telling support are Stuart Fox as the scheming family lawyer, Jennifer Higham as the most determined of the two daughters and Christopher Naylor as an amorous business accomplice.