The Orange Tree's outstanding 35-year commitment to reviving unjustly neglected plays continues with an impressive version of The Madras House, the fourth Harley Granville Barker work to be staged at the theatre. While the play doesn't quite have the same dramatic impact as The Voysey Inheritance (especially in Peter Gill's recent excellent production at the National), over its three-hour length it deals with some equally substantial themes, such as gender relations and the position of women in society, class and capitalism.
First produced in 1910, The Madras House reveals the dark underbelly on which comfortable middle-class Edwardian society was based. It focuses on two families involved in the retail clothing business, who first became linked 30 years earlier when Constantine Madras married Amelia Huxtable, now long separated. Their son Philip, who has been running both firms with the help of Amelia's brother Henry, wants to leave to devote himself to social reform, so his Islamic convert father returns from Arabia to sell the business to an American entrepreneur called State.
In Barker's beautifully structured four-act drama, we move from the well-appointed Huxtable home in Denmark Hill, where six unmarried daughters are trapped, Bernarda Alba-like, under their domineering mother's watchful gaze, to the Huxtable drapery emporium in Peckham, where (mainly female) employees are forced to 'live in' so that their moral behaviour is scrutinized even out of work. And then from the haute couture Madras House establishment in Bond Street, where mannequins parade for the benefit of the (male) board of directors, to the smart Kensington house of Philip and his dissatisfied wife.
The play reflects the Suffragette background of the time, when women were becoming increasingly desperate to escape the roles in which they were imprisoned, whether domestic or in employment. It also shows Barker's socialist awareness of the inequalities of class as well as gender, where money not welfare is the driving force. Although at times over-earnest and over-polemical, it is genuinely thought-provoking with moments of real humour: somewhere between Ibsen and Shaw.
Director Sam Walters marshalls the 17-strong cast magnificently. Timothy Watson plays the enlightened Philip Madras with quiet authority, while Richard Durden as the self-deluding compulsive womaniser Constantine and Jan Carey as the self-pitying, embittered Amelia, give strong performances as his estranged parents.
Geoff Leesley is the sympathetically bemused traditionalist Henry, and Jacqueline King is his formidable wife Katherine. Mark Frost provides much of the comic relief as the 'very married' but susceptible Major Hippisly Thomas, who acts as the agent for John Chancer's Eustace Perrin State, a capitalist visionary who sees only poetry in profit.