What Every Woman Knows

J M Barrie
Finborough Theatre
(2010)

Louise Hill is to be thanked for bringing this delightful 1908 comedy of sexual politics back into the public eye. J M Barrie would have been 150 in May and, but for Peter Pan (and possibly The Admirable Crichton), would now largely be forgotten.

It would be a shame if plays like What Every Woman Knows disappeared, as, despite the changes of the last century, it still has much to say to us about human nature and the way we live now.

It starts off at the beginning of the Twentieth Century in the home of the Wylies, a respectable family of Scots living just outside Glasgow. They are threatened by a burglar, who turns out to be a serious-minded young student keen to further his learning in the wee small hours, with the aid of their bookshelf.

Gareth Glen as John Shand is offered the kind of bargain that would take any man a few moments to consider. Led by eldest brother Jack Tarlton's convincing David, the Wylie menfolk proposition Shand with the offer of what would now be known as a student grant - funding through University.

His side of the bargain is marriage to their sister Maggie five years hence. She is neither an oil painting nor young by the standards of the time at 27 five years his senior but has other "charms" to offer a mate.

The deal is struck and six years later, we witness the young man celebrating his election to parliament and, to follow, a marriage that will inevitably be loveless. The question that Barrie makes us ask is whether a man can derive anything from such an alliance founded on money.

The two acts after the interval show the playwright testing contemporary givens to great effect and with characteristic humour.

First, with the dubious connivance of her Aunt, a wicked Comtesse portrayed by Carmen Rodriguez, Anne-Marie Piazza in the role of Lady Sybil Tenterden makes a play for the former railway porter, now the coming man well on the way to a ministerial appointment.

Lady Sybil is a blonde bimbo a century before they existed, which is ironic, since the politician has risked his career to promote votes for women and now threatens to throw their cause away for the lust of one.

The final act pits her Ladyship against the wife who spices up the speeches, though Shand is too dull and humourless to realise it. The end is inevitable but the message that Barrie gives us about the good woman behind every man is powerful and still valid today.

Madeleine Worrall gives a fine performance as Maggie and Glen is also strong in a cast that is a little uneven. However, that does not detract from the comedy or the quality of the writing.

The hope is that this production, which only has eight performances, is seen by enough people to bring the prolific J M Barrie back to the position that he deserves as one of the best and most popular writers of his period and as such, worthy of a decent anniversary retrospective.

Philip Fisher