Forgotten playwright offers a work to remember

The Stepmother, by Githa Sowerby

Minerva Theatre, Chichester

It is always a joy when a new playwright bursts onto the theatrical scene. It is equally thrilling when a forgotten author is rediscovered. Githa Sowerby’s excellent 1923 play ‘The Stepmother’ has been revived at Chichester under the unerring guidance of Richard Eyre, director of the National Theatre from 1988 to 1997.

Her first play Rutherford & Son’ was staged in 1912 under the name K G Sowerby, which people presumed was a man, and it ‘caused a sensation. Originally programmed for four matinee performances, it was such a success that it transferred to the West End and later to America, with translations in many different languages. Although Githa Sowerby was hailed as the ‘new Ibsen’, success seems to sent her into her shell; and her second play, ‘The Stepmother’ was not finished until the 1920s and staged in 1924, but for only for one performance in a private club. Her third and last play has remained unpublished.

‘The Stepmother’ was revived in 2008 by the Shaw Theatre in Canada. Eyre extols it as “very much a play for our time. It is underscored by a passionate belief in the massive injustice of the position of women. The play embraces the topics of money, sex [gender], and class.”

Shy teenager Lois Relph (Ophelia Lovibond) has come to live with the family of businessman Eustace Gaydon (Will Keen) after the death of his sister Fanny (who had taken her under her wing five years before). The clearly shifty Gaydon is aghast to discover that his sister has bequeathed her small fortune to Lois, as he had been eagerly expecting the money to underwrite his losses on speculative ventures.

In the second act the story has moved on 10 years and Lois has become Mrs Gaydon and the stepmother to Gaydon’s two teenage daughters, Monica and Betty. Lois has entrusted her inheritance to her husband – apparently this was common practice at the time – and she does not enquire what he has done and is doing with the money. She also working hard to sustain a successful fashion boutique she has set up in London.

Monica (Eve Ponsonby) is in love with and secretly engaged to Cyril Bennet (Samuel Valentine), whose father was once Gaydon’s solicitor and knows all about his dodgy dealings. Mr Bennet (Simon Chandler) had begged Lois not to trust Gaydon with her money and does not want his son to marry Monica.

This simmering concoction of money, gender and power boils over when Lois tries to force Mr Bennet’s hand by offering him £10,000 as a dowery for Monica to marry Cyril. Will Gaydon be exposed or will his continuous machinations succeed?

Will he retain his power over his wife through secrecy, lies and manipulation? Or will she discover the truth and recover her money and power? Will the lovers marry?

Will Keen and Ophelia Lovibond in The Stepmother. Photo by Catherine Ashmore

While this may seem like plain melodrama, the way Sowerby manages her plotting and characterization is brilliantly dramatic. Many scenes brought sharp intakes of breath and knowing laughter from the audience. All the key characters are clearly and carefully drawn and the result is memorable and thrilling theatre, thanks to Eyre’s skillful direction and some splendid acting.

It is a pity that there is only one other Sowerby play to savour, and that has been revived at the National Theatre in the last 10 years. ‘The Stepmother’ deserves an extended run in this revival and hopefully this production will not disappear from view after Chichester.

Nick Keith