The Madras House @ Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond

cast list
Timothy Watson
Richard Durden
Catherine Hamilton
Mark Frost
Jacqueline King
Octavia Walters
Nicholas Gadd

directed by
Sam Walters
Harley Granville Barker was a theatrical radical. Anyone who’s seen Peter Gill’s excellent, if occasionally stiff, production of The Voysey Inheritance at the National will be aware of this. His attitude to the key social and political issues of his day, especially the contentious ‘women question,’ was years ahead of his time and Richmond’s Orange Tree Theatre should be commended for bringing his work to a wider audience. It’s just a shame their production is so overly-reverential.

Written in 1910, though at times it’s easy to forget this fact given the handling of the issues under discussion, The Madras House concerns the well-off Madras family and in particular the dilemma of Philip Madras, a politically aware individual (and possible proxy for Granville Barker) who is on the verge of chucking in his job, selling the family business – a women’s fashion house – and taking a more socially responsible position on the council.

Granville Barker paints some neat parallels between the Madras business of dressing women and the general position of women in society at the time. Few women in the play have any say in their lives, like the interchangeable Huxtable daughters, banished to the balcony when business is to be discussed, and the mute French models bussed in to promenade in the latest fashions for the Madras House management. The exceptions to this rule are Philip’s determined wife Jessica (played by Catherine Hamilton) and Miss Yates (played by Octavia Walters) a live-in seamstress at the Madras House who, having found herself in an “unfortunate situation” argues her right to keep the father’s identity to herself and retain her independence.

Unfortunately a lot of these subtleties get lost over the course of the production. The chief problem is not necessarily one of length – though at three hours it was always going to be something of a slog – it’s more that, in order to get across ideas and arguments that must have been quite shocking at the time of writing, Barker resorts to repetition and sledge-hammer tactics. Discussions go round in circles and key points are made – and then made all over again. Some scenes prove gripping (particularly the business meeting at the Bond street offices of the Madras House) but others drag on interminably.

Sam Walters production does little to tighten up the material for modern sensibilitiesand the Orange Tree’s usually elegant set design has been replaced with some ugly blue lino – seemingly borrowed from a primary school canteen – and a job-lot of cheap wicker furniture.

Built in-the-round, the venue must be a daunting space to perform in, but the large cast stand up well under such scrutiny. Timothy Watson is superb as the conflicted Philip, determined not to become a man like his father. Mark Frost is equally strong as the buffoonish Major Hippisly Thomas, as is Richard Durden as the aforementioned patriarch Constantine, who having long ago abandoned his wife and absconded to Arabia, is now a passionate advocate for Islam and polygamy.

But theatrical tastes and trends have moved on since Granville Barker was writing and the playwright himself would probably be the first to recognise this progress as a necessary thing. The Madras House could easily have an hour shorn off its running time without losing any of its power and dynamism; as it is, audience members will find themselves – despite the strength of the performances – fidgeting long towards the end. The Orange Tree is one of London’s best Off West End spaces and their programme is unfailingly ambitious but this production is more often a chore than it is a pleasure.

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