An old-fashioned girl

Monday, 21 March, 2011

‘Mary Broome’ at the Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond

Katie McGuinness plays Mary Broome, an Edwardian servant to a middle class household

When middle-class Manchester households had ‘staff’ and young sons, problems like this must have been not too unfamiliar – housemaids becoming pregnant that is. But the initial problem which serves to drive the elder Timbrell (a permanently florid Michael Lumsden) to distraction is only the beginning of a series of issues in which the catalyst is the younger son of the household, Leonard (Jack Farthing).

He starts by proposing to run away – to run away, having stolen his mother’s housekeeping money, without either a blush or nod toward responsibility (or it would seem, a thought for Mary Broome, now pregnant with his child). Leonard is as laid back as it is possible to be, and feels neither guilt nor, it seems, love. Sometimes, something approximating to affection is there, but it is a pale shadow of the real thing. One wonders how the pregnancy ever came about, unless it was by some wayward (possibly beautiful) thought.

Leonard is an artist. He writes (‘sketches, impressions’…). He has insights to which others are not often admitted. He sees, in the characters of his mother and his eventual wife Mary Broome, a certain wildness, a desperate and committed individuality – of the kind that leads all those EM Forster heroines (this play is of the same era as Howards’ End) to commit themselves to danger and their own unrestrained human natures.

Leonard may see, but he cannot act on any other principle than to please himself – moment by moment. He is charming, he is erudite and he bears no grudges, but he is – to his father and brother at least – totally infuriating. Meanwhile Mary (Katie McGuinness), the mother of his child, is awkward, untutored but also youthfully decisive and if not ‘pure’ then certainly loving, aware of a duty to remake the world in her own generation. In the end, Leonard’s insight is as empty as his father’s posturing, as is his whole family’s acceptance of the roles and processes of society in an England where only very tiny deviations from the normal are tolerated.

Leonard may look for deeper significance, but his ability to be insightful comes at a price. He is casually cruel to all around him, even if his sins are those of passivity (inaction rather than intention), their pain goes deep, too deep at last for his wife, who is the moral touchstone of the play.

This is old-fashioned drama, done in drawing rooms and amongst post-Victorian clutter, where upwardly mobile families cling to society’s forms and imitate those of an unknown upper class (one tea caddy for China, one for Indian). The thrust and energy of Manchester society that gave the Industrial Revolution to the British Empire is now a pale imitation of what it was. Changes arrive each day – the end of the horse-drawn cab being just one – but the days of families like the Timbrells (and the Broomes too, if it comes to that) are numbered if they cannot adapt themselves to the new age.

Director Auriol Smith keeps us alive with wry smiles and laughter and while this play may not be ‘one of the great comedies’ as it was once acclaimed to be, it is both eminently watchable and entertaining, and writer Allan Monkhouse has created in Leonard a character who is both infuriating and personally charming, indifferent and alarmingly without a sense of self.

Cast: Charlotte Brimble – Maid; Martha Dancy – Ada Timbrell; Harriet Eastcott – Mrs Pendleton; Jack Farthing – Leonard Timbrell; Bernard Holley – Mr Pendleton;  Kieron Jecchnis – Mr Broome; Emma Johnston – Maid; Moir Leslie – Mrs Broome; Michael Lumsden – Mr Timbrell; Katie McGuinness – Mary Broome; Paul O’Mahony – Edgar Timbrell; Emily Pennant-Rea – Sheila Ray; Eunice Roberts – Mrs Timbrell; Eve Shickle – Mrs Greaves

Writer – Allan Monkhouse; director – Auriol Smith; designer – Sam Dowson; costume – Jude Stedham; lighting – John Harris

(c) michael spring 2011

reviewed Friday, 18th March


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