The Man Who Pays the Piper
G B Stern
Orange Tree, Richmond
From 13 March 2013 to 13 April 2013
Review by Philip Fisher
The Man Who Pays the Piper, first seen in 1931, may not be the best constructed play that you will ever see but it is richly entertaining and offers a rare early feminist viewpoint.
The protagonist is the indomitable Daryll Fairley, given great depth in this performance by Deirdre Mullins.
In the short opening act / prologue set in that definitive year of 1913, she is a tipsy, headstrong 18-year-old fighting her doctor daddy after wilfully missing his midnight curfew.
Thirteen years on, he and a son have lost their lives in the Great War, leaving behind five siblings and Julia Watson as their ineffectual mother.
The family are a rum bunch of good-for-nothings, at least in a financial sense. Their literal good fortune lies in the presence of Daryll, who has become the sole breadwinner, bringing in £1,600 a year when that could virtually support a stately home-hold.
Running a fashion house is hard work and it must be galling to support quite so many spongers but even on discovering a previously unknown, penniless stepfather, amusingly portrayed by Stuart Fox, the young lady retains her good nature.
The revelation of a darker side is left to feckless Fay, the youngest sister. Emily Tucker convinces as a jazz age hedonist who will not back down and see sense, eventually forcing big sis to turn into her father by playing the economic card, her personal equivalent of a familial nuclear bomb.
In order to change the tone, G B Stern gives dear Mum an unexpected inheritance. This is all that it takes to free Daryll to marry Simon Harrison's Rufus and retire from business to an idyllic life of terrific boredom in Knightsbridge.
Apparently, even then she remains a sleeping partner in the fashion emporium, which is necessary to facilitate a final scene that almost pays homage to A Doll's House as the bored wife threatens desertion, although the dénouement is far from Ibsen.
The Man Who Pays the Piper brings about a fascinating series of musings on the place of men and women in modern (1913-1930) society, which will still speak to both men and women today.
Director Helen Leblique and her cast make this a light, enjoyable 2¾ hours, even if they can't entirely cover up the odd authorial contrivance and thinness of the supporting characters, several of whom are distinctly one-dimensional.
None of that is the point in a play that does such a good job of creating an early modern feminist, who must, one imagines, have been closely based on the playwright herself to create such authenticity. As such, the Orange Tree deserves to have another beautifully costumed, period hit on its hands.