Library Theatre, Manchester
The Library Theatre is producing Stanley Houghton's little-known 1909 play Independent Means to contribute to the centenary celebrations for Annie Horniman, who began the British repertory theatre movement with the opening of the Gaiety Theatre in Manchester, just round the corner from the Library.
The play revolves around the Forsyths, an upper-class, conservative, Victorian family in the Edwardian age with the First World War just half a decade away. Forsyth, who confesses he is useless at business, makes his money from large shareholdings in a small number of companies, but when a couple of them fail massively he starts to speculate on the stock market and compounds the problem. However he keeps the problems secret and continues to live the aristocratic lifestyle to save face, even from his immature son Edgar and his rather more intelligent and politically-aware wife Sidney.
While some have claimed that the play is timely due to the world financial crisis, this, frankly, is a bit of a stretch. The main theme of the play is sexual politics, contrasting the staunch Victorian views of male dominance and mental and physical superiority of Forsyth and his son with Sidney, the new Edwardian woman who is educated, politically aware and active and determined to be considered an individual with a life and views of her own and not just a prop to her husband.
A lot of the views expressed by the men in this play produced shocked gasps and laughs from the audience, but it would be interesting to know how a audiences of 1909 reacted. Perhaps they would have been more shocked at Sidney's outbursts, which today are shocking only in that she seems to be kicking a man when he is down, even if what she says makes sense. This was an age when Ibsen and Shaw who are both referred to were considered shocking or even obscene.
There seems to be a nod to Ibsen in the storyline of an older couple that stays together despite being unhappy contrasted with the couple that splits up, although for the latter Houghton takes the comedy route of making them actually love each other very much but each too afraid to say it first. The ending, in fact, is a little too perfect in some ways, even though it doesn't end happily for everyone, moving away from political satire and into drawing room comedy.
However this is a small criticism for a piece that still works very well with lots of subtle humour throughout and plenty to get the mind and the debates going, even if the issues are a now a century old. Chris Honer's production is perfectly-paced and entertaining throughout; where some other local theatres manage to make this sort of play seem dragged out and dull, this is certainly not a problem here.
This is helped by a superb cast. Olwen May is wonderfully natural with her portrayal of Mrs Forsyth, remaining strong and diplomatic with all sides throughout her troubles. As the fiery Sidney, Ruth Gibson gives a strong and equally natural performance, with some very good support from her main antagonist Rupert Frazer as the proudly old-fashioned aristocrat John Forsyth. Sarah Parks is the servant, Jane Gregory, who comes into money, Geoff Breton plays useless, immature Edgar Forsyth and Richard Albrecht is family friend and car manufacturer Samuel Richie.
Sarah Williamson's design reproduces a sumptuous upper-class drawing room with very nice fabric walls that are translucent so we can see people in the corridors outside, and there is a beautifully-choreographed scene change for the last act that produced "aahh"s of approval from the audience.
This is certainly a period piece and any attempt to draw parallels with modern events are a little contrived, but they are also unnecessary. This is a wonderful forgotten play with lots of humour and a fascinating insight into an upper-class lifestyle that was about to change quite considerably (much like in Chekhov's plays) that is given a perfect treatment by the Library Theatre. It is well worth a look.
Running until 22nd November
Reviewer: David Chadderton