Mary Broome

Allan Monkhouse

Orange Tree Theatre

(2011)

Review by Howard Loxton

Allan Monkhouse was theatre critic of the Manchester Guardian in the early part of the last century, a critic who knew his business for he was the writer of at least ten successful plays. He was one of the group of dramatists, along with Harold Brighouse (best known for Hobson's Choice) and Stanley Houghton (Hindle Wakes), who wrote plays for England's first repertory theatre, Annie Horniman's Gaiety, and became known as the Manchester School.

Mary Broome premiered at the Gaiety just a century ago so this is a timely revival. It is a remarkably fresh piece of writing and Monkhouse wastes no time in lengthy expositions. A short scene with a bride-to-be opening a wedding present establishes that Edgar, the eldest son of the Timbrell household, is soon to be married. In no time we are faced with the discovery that his brother Leonard has made their maid Mary Broome pregnant.

Leonard is a dilettante layabout with pretensions to poetry and belles lettres: the opening line of a sonnet he is writing on the marriage: "The jocund sun has tipped the mountain tops" doesn't suggest he has any great talent. He has refused to go into the family business but is still being supported by his no-nonsense, strait-laced father. A posing egoist, who seems to think himself part of the earlier aesthetic movement, he loves playing the clever boots but he doesn't seem to be aware of the real world. Jack Farthing plays him with a self-conscious charm that just about explains how he gets away with his thoughtlessness and exploitation of others, for which he thinks a flowery apology is enough to excuse. His mother sees his faults but still dotes on him; his father barely tolerates him.

While all their children have refined educated voices, Michael Lumsden and Eunice Roberts as Mr and Mrs Timbrell still retain their northern accents. One suspects that they are not so far removed from the background of servant girl Mary. These are performances that suggest the whole background of their relationship, a relationship that Mrs Timbrell now begins to question.

Mary Broome is open and honest but lack of education means she hasn't a clue what Leonard is talking about much of the time. From a god-fearing family, she's obviously been brought up to do what she is told. She feels she is in the wrong and has no sense of her own rights. Katie McGuiness gives her both a practical commonsense and that apparent stupidity that comes from having no education or sense of self. You are sorry for her but want to give her a kick almost as much as you do Leonard.

Though he is clearly not in love, Leonard and Mary are pushed into marriage but this is no traditional tale of reform and a happy ending but a critique of both middle class mores and working class inertia with a strong strand of emerging feminist rebellion and even a reminder of the way 'progress' can wreak havoc on worker's employment.. It is very much of its time yet doesn't seem dated, for in our world divisions between the haves and have-nots are becoming increasingly wider and, though contraception has made attitudes to sex now differ, exploitation, whether personal or economic, hasn't changed.

Auriol Smith's direction draws first rate performances from her cast, and especially delightful cameos from Bernard Holley as a generous minded friend of the Timbrells and Kieron Jecchinis as Mary's father. Though the central characters may try one's patience, the play's unpredictable unfolding and humour ensure continuing interest and this very enjoyable production makes one wonder what else might be rediscovered from Miss Horniman's Gaiety repertoire..

Run ends 22nd April 2011