John Galsworthy’s flawed but fascinating 1920 play continues the Orange Tree’s excellent season celebrating Shaw and his contemporaries. It has been illuminating to see how the dramatists of the early twentieth century shared similar preoccupations with themes such as capitalism, class and the position of women in society. And Sam Walters’ beautifully modulated production of The Skin Game breathes dramatic life into Galsworthy’s judicious examination of social and ethical problems.
The play centres around the conflict between old and new money, as represented respectively by the Hillcrists, gentry who have owned their land for generations but whose finances are now in decline, and the nouveau riche family of Hornblower, an ever-expanding pottery manufacturer. Squire Hillcrist has sold Hornblower land on condition that the agricultural tenants there would be able to carry on living in their cottages, so when Hornblower decides to evict them in favour of his own factory workers, class war is declared.
The situation looks grim for the Hillcrists when, through trickery at an auction, Hornblower buys more adjacent land for his business, so that they will be surrounded by the industrialist’s chimneys and trucks. However, the Hillcrists have a weapon that can potentially give them victory: threatening to expose a scandalous secret in Hornblower’s own family. But will they stoop that low?
Although the play may seem rather earnestly well-meaning, it is also surprisingly well balanced between the conflicting points of view of the protagonists and there is real dramatic tension here, not just a debate of differing ideas. This is about the changing face of English society but there is good and bad on both sides in Galsworthy’s refreshingly non-judgemental stance. And beneath the veneer of civilization, both parties will when under pressure resort to ‘the skin game’, a bare-knuckled fight for survival.
The play really comes alive when Clive Francis’s Hornblower first appears: his tremendously charismatic performance shows how much the businessman’s antagonism towards the Hillcrests stems from their snobbery towards his family. With his hand clenched behind his back, this is a man spoiling for a fight and prepared to use his power ruthlessly, and yet Francis makes him far from unsympathetic.
Geoffrey Beevers also impresses as Hillcrist, a gentleman full of personal charm and kindness, who nonetheless comes to realize with horror that his passivity makes him complicit in the moral murkiness that lies outside the Queensberry rules. Lynn Farleigh is his formidably steely wife Amy for whom the family’s ends justify using any means.
Charity Reindorp is rather stilted as Chloe, Hornblower’s daughter-in law with ‘a past’, but then the second half of the play does become increasingly melodramatic as plot and intrigue threaten to overcome the subtle dynamics between characters set up with such consummate skill earlier on.