The Orange Tree, Richmond’s resident theatre in-the-round, has ambitiously focused much of its current season on infrequently performed Victorian and Edwardian plays; works which examine the class system of the period and, more pointedly, the rights of women within that system.
Diana of Dobson’s was written by the feminist and suffragist Cicely Hamilton in 1908. The play follows the fortunes of the eponymous heroine (Cate Debenham-Taylor), a doctor’s daughter who, for the past six years, has been forced to earn her living as a shop girl. Living-in at Dobson’s, a draper’s emporium, with a number of other girls she rails against an upbringing that has not equipped her better to earn a living, and a world with so few choices.
Then Diana is left 300 and instead of saving or investing carefully, as suggested by the other girls, she decides to have one glorious month – buying nice clothes and spending it on luxuries.
We next see her in a hotel in Switzerland where she has become a favourite of the feckless Captain Victor Bretherton (Edward Bennett) and his aunt Mrs Cantelupe (Lavinia Bertram). Bretherton, a bumbling fool, is attracted to Diana for her beauty, wit and cleverness, and his interest is peaked even further when his aunt suggests she is rich.
This play is packed with many ideas and, like the other plays in the season – Harley Granville Barker’s The Madras House and Shaw’s Major Barbara – it examines the very limited choices open to women. When Diana tells Bretherton the truth about her social position, he accuses her of being an adventuress; Hamilton then has her point out that he too is an adventurer, seeing as he was only truly interested in marrying her when he thought she was rich.
The production further explores the rigid class structure of Edwardian society through the character of Sir Jabez Grinley (Geoff Leesley), who will never fit into Mrs Cantelupe’s circle because he is an industrialist, he has made his money on the backs of shop girls – girls like Diana.
What sets this apart from the previous plays in the season is its tone and style; whereas the other plays showed their age, this is still a bitingly funny play, packed with wonderful characters. The performances are equally delightful with Edward Bennett’s Bretherton completely stealing the show. He plays the bumbling idiot with a posh voice well, yet as the play develops, his character deepens and becomes something much more rounded.
Cate Debenham-Taylor is also strong as Diana, and performs her part with great conviction, especially the scenes where she agues with Bretherton about the rights and choices open to her, as a woman of limited means
Kudos to director Caroline Smith, who has found a unique way out of one of problems with the Orange Tree space. Being an Edwardian play, Diana requires a certain amount of fussy set-changes, but unlike previous productions where long periods of darkness and fumbling were the only option, Smith has used this opportunity to draw into the proceedings a number of musical hall songs that compliment the action.
Diana of Dobson’s is the best production so far in the Orange Tree’s admirable season; sparklingly fresh and tremendous fun.