The years before World War I were one of the most fertile periods in English theatre. G.B. Shaw, Harley Granville-Barker, John Galsworthy, J.M. Barrie, Somerset Maugham were at their creative peak and older writers like Arthur Wing Pinero were still writing good plays. All these men were based in London, but there were also a group of playwrights in Manchester, one of whom was Allan Monkhouse, a prolific novelist as well as writer for the theatre. His MARY BROOME (1911) was the most recent of a fine series of revivals of Victorian and Edwardian plays at the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond. This little theatre-in-the-round has the knack for honest, nuanced presentations of these works.
MARY BROOME is a servant in the prosperous bourgeoise household of Edward Timbrell, one of the pompous, successful men who were one of the favorite targets of comedies of the period. Edward has two sons, who could not be more different from one another. Edgar is a carbon copy of his father, about to embark on the usual sort of respectable marriage for a man like him. His brother Leonard is, as he admits, a bounder. He claims to be a writer, but is not very good at it. Basically his only talents are spending other people's money and dominating conversations. He despises middle class morality and narrow-mindedness, but is himself unprincipled and self-indulgent and dependent on the money his conventional, respectable relatives earn. He is also a born performer, dominating every conversation with comments designed to infuriate his father and shock other members of the family. He has managed to get poor Mary Broome pregnant. She is a sweet, simple uneducated girl with a strong sense of morality. She knows she has done something wrong, but is most concerned about the welfare of her child. When Leonard's father says that either he will marry Mary or be cut off without a cent, the two embark on what will inevitably be a disastrous marriage of convenience for both of them. Leonard dashes off to parts unknown, leaving Mary to deal with the death of her beloved son and penury -- one insult too many has caused Leonard's father to cut off his allowance. At the end, Mary goes off to Canada with a young milkman who will be a good husband and Leonard is left alone but unrepentant.
All this doesn't seem the stuff of comedy, but Monkhouse treats his potentially melodramatic material with a deft, light touch. For the most part, the characters are articulate and witty or, if narrow minded, the barbs of other characters' wit. Mary seems a melodramtic character in the midst of a comedy of manners. She doesn't understand much of what her husband says, but comes to understand his fecklessness. She is willing to defy conventional morality to get what she needs for herself, though in many ways she is the most ethical character. Like many playwrights of the period, Monkhouse is sorting through the conventional morality of an earlier era to see what still pertains for his age. Like many of his peers, he sees women as more insightful and practical than the men they must economically depend on.
The Orange Tree revival of MARY BROOME is a big hit for this suburban venue. Even on a Monday night it was sold out with full standing room. Veteran Auriol Smith has directed the play deftly. One of the virtues of seeing these plays in an intimate theatre is that the dialogue can be presented realistically at almost conversational level, and it is amazing how good these plays "sound", what masters of dialogue the writers of the period were. The cast was uniformly good, but special praise must be accorded to Jack Farthing who managed to make Leonard someone we enjoyed watching despite the fact that the character is a nasty piece of business. Farthing's Leonard relishes his performance as a hopeless reprobate as he knows it is a performance with nothing much underneath it.
A delightful evening of theatre.
MARY BROOME. Orange Tree Theatre. April 11, 2011.