Mia Austen, Penelope Beaumont, Mark Burrell, Timothy Carlton, Claire Carrie, Michael Lumsden, Damien Matthews, Christopher Naylor, Susie Trayling, David Whitworth, James Woolley, Philip York
Following its season of Vaclav Havel plays, the Orange Tree in Richmond has returned to more familiar territory with a revival of a little known Edwardian play by Henry Arthur Jones.
Written and originally performed in 1913 this is a strange hybrid of a political play wrapped around a sitting room farce.
Set in the northern manufacturing town of Warkenstall all the action takes place in the home of a young lawyer Felix Galpin (Damien Matthews). Warkenstall has two rivals for queen bee; Mary Whichello (Susie Trayling) who has grown used to being the leading woman in local society and Lady Bodsworth (Claire Carrie) whose husband has just received a knighthood, to Mary’s disgust.
Much of the play is concerned with class warfare and part of Mary’s hatred stems from her horror at Fanny Bodsworth, a grocers daughter, being considered higher in society than herself. The crux of the story turns around an overheard slight in which the ‘impropriety’ of Lady Bodsworth’s hair and make-up are considered. An apology is demanded from Mary who refuses and schemes not just to avoid apologising but also to promote her husband to a Baronetcy in an attempt to raise her position in society higher than Lady Bodsworth.
Claire Carry is fantastic as Lady Bodsworth a common brassy blonde in the beginning who is gradually transformed into a mousy heap of nerves by the end. Susie Trayling’s Mary is a terrifying harridan of a woman who’s scheming and acid tongue is monstrous; furthermore she only barely manages to redeem Mary by the end.
The second key theme of the play is the political divisions in England in the period leading up the First World War. With Sir Thomas Bodsworth (Philip York), Mr Tadman (James Woolley) and Richard Whichello (Michael Lumsden) all espousing common Conservative views of the period on themes such as Tariff reform, Home Rule and public works.
More interesting is Felix Galpin who espouses a more flexible attitude to politics, aware that his chances of succeeding in his chosen career depend on his political affiliations. Damien Matthews has a hard task with Galpin, who appears completely passive to the action going on around him and yet his opinion and desires are what the play turns round. Matthews manages to make Galpin’s political vacillations funny and is very much the heart of the piece.
As dictated by the space, the Orange Tree has had to find interesting ways of dealing with set changes; designer Sam Dowson continues the theatre’s trend of using musical interludes to incorporate set alterations. The butler, Daikin (David Whitworth), and his assistant change sets in between acts. In the past these sometimes lengthy interludes have interrupted the flow of the play, however this time it manages to reflect the social discussions of the piece. The cat and mouse machinations between the Whichellos and Bodsworths are put into stark contrast by the servants scurrying around out of sight of their masters.
Though Mary Goes First is an interesting piece which holds your attention all the way through, there is nevertheless a sense of something missing. If you do not know at least a little about the politics of the time you may well find yourself lost (despite the handy notes in the programme) or feeling a little like you’re in a history lesson..