AN OLD FIGHT HONOURED
Sick of the patriarchy, girls? Take a safari to 1908 and visit the real thing. Witness the elephantine authority of Hugo deMullin, last of a line of beautifully pointless country squires, telling his 36-year-old daughter that “the only possible independence for a woman is that she should depend on her husband. Or nearest male relative”. Thrill to her refusal to come home and his brisk “My dear, that is not a decision that rests with you”. Peering into the tiger-enclosure and tremble at Harriet Thorpe’s Mrs Clouston, a figure who makes Lady Bracknell seem laid-back, excoriating the modern young woman’s taste for “Bye-Cycling” (God bless Edwardian pronunciation gags).
And here is Hester, the younger sister: Maya Wasowicz a slender streak of grey frock, her narrow pale face sorrowful as a lost lurcher, yearning for the curate’s embrace; and here is her elder sister Janet, Charlotte Powell sleek and frisky as a raccoon, returning with a sailor-suited child in tow eight years after escaping through a window and hi-tailing it to London to raise her illegitimate child and run a hat shop, outraging decent society by suing aristocratic debtors.
These splendid revivals do, at times, feel slightly like a trip to the zoo. But St John Hankin’s play about The Woman Problem, which was exercising the Ibsen generation, is well worth restaging for the first time in a century. Joshua Stamp-Simon as director wisely eschews traditional intervals and gallops through a highly entertaining 95 minutes, against one of those elaborate panelled drawing-room sets which the tiny Jermyn, with miraculous cheek, constructs against all odds. There is a great deal of hilarity, not least in a magnificently milked moment when a furious family row has to be suspended for an agonizingly long time while the maid rather slowly lights the lamps.
There’s nice sharp social horror moments as when the innocent child asks his grandfather what the ancestors in the portraits did for a living. And some fine performances, not least from Roberta Taylor as the poor mother, torn between keeping her choleric invalid husband from dropping dead from affront, and her touching affection for the prodigal daughter. But there are also some unexpected points. The lover, it turns out, was seven years younger than Janet in that romantic fling, and she scorned to “trap a schoolboy” into marriage. We learn that he too is trapped, by a domineering father and conventional duty.
It ends, as didactic comedies of the period often do (think Wilde or Shaw) with naturalistic dialogue receding as the heroine delivers a speech-cum- manifesto. Yet interestingly, that is not so much about the independent career she has established but about a different female right: the one denied to poor withering Hester who mustn’t marry the lowly curate because she is a deMullin. That final female right Janet declares is for a woman to be made love to before she fades, and win the pain and joy and fulfilment of motherhood. Not quite the 2015 feminist manifesto, but stirring stuff. And Janet still has the hat-shop, after all: a 1908 single mother with her own business. Result! I am rather falling for St John Hankin.
Box Office: 020 7287 2875 http://www.eticketing.co.uk/jermynstreettheatre
to 28 Feb