Diana of Dobson's
New Vic Theatre
New Vic, Newcastle-under-Lyme
Cicely Hamilton was a campaigner for women’s rights who briefly joined Emmeline Pankhurst’s Women’s Social and Political Union. She did not stay with Pankhurst’s suffragettes for long but remained active in the movement.
Her play How the Vote Was Won, written in 1909, is recognised as the birth of suffrage drama. Her work from the previous year, Diana of Dobson’s, is described as a “lost treasure” of Edwardian theatre, mixing “stylish comedy” with social commentary in a “rags-to-riches story set in the unseen world of overworked, underpaid shop girls”.
Diana of Dobson’s takes place at a time when shop workers were mercilessly exploited. Bosses regarded them as cheap, dispensable labour; they spent many hours on their feet, were paid less than their male equivalents and slept in overcrowded, germ-filled dormitories.
Dobson’s drapery was no different to many other businesses at the time; marriage was regarded as the only way out—unless you had a lucky break. One of the shop girls, Diana, earning five bob a week, gets that when a distant cousin dies without leaving a will and she inherits £300.
Instead of using her windfall wisely, she takes the view that money is power: she wants the best of everything and experiences for a short time a life of luxury posing as a wealthy widow in a hotel in the Swiss Alps.
Diana of Dobson’s is performed and produced in typical New Vic fashion: enthusiasm, style and attention to detail abound. Any problems with the play are in the script: the feminist writer seemed to miss a trick by not concentrating enough on the crippling conditions faced by the girls in the drapery. Diana of Dobson’s touches on the inequalities faced by the young women without showing the audience what they faced.
There are some impressive performances in Abbey Wright’s production: Mariam Haque gives a robust portrayal of Diana, the strong-willed young woman who speaks her mind knowing that it will not have long-lasting consequences; Kate Cook is a snobby but likeable Mrs Cantelupe who berates her nephew for not making his feelings known to Diana after they spend time together in Switzerland; and Adam Buchanan shows us a gentlemanly, unreserved Captain the Honourable Victor Bretherton rather than the headstrong predator his aunt wants him to be.
There are also a couple of excellent cameos from Andrew Pollard, a New Vic regular whose considerable talents appear to be underused.
A handful of Victorian and Edwardian music-hall songs with piano accompaniment by a couple of the cast sit well in the production, especially when sets are being changed. The removal of dormitory beds so that the action can move to Switzerland would have dragged interminably without the music.
Diana of Dobson’s seems a strange choice of play to revive: it came at an early stage of the author’s career and concentrates on how money can change people’s perceptions of an individual rather than the gulf between the working and upper classes.
The play is genteel rather than gritty, polite rather than pioneering, worthy rather than well-honed.
Reviewer: Steve Orme