Mary Goes First

Henry Arthur Jones
Orange Tree, Richmond
(2008)

Even those well-versed in the world of theatre have barely heard of Henry Arthur Jones, let alone seen one of his plays. This makes him perfect material for rediscovery by the Orange Tree, which wages an almost solo battle to bring the works of forgotten writers back into public performance.

The work that has been chosen as a showcase might best be described as an upmarket Edwardian sitcom. With its social comedy and concentration on political issues, it will have seemed to audiences in its day as a kind of light-hearted cousin to Granville Barker and Shaw.

This production is set by Sam Dowson in the comfortable drawing room of Felix Galpin a young, impecunious lawyer and would-be politician, played by Damien Matthews. The plotting centres on a bitchy battle between Claire Carrie as the nouveau riche Lady Bodsworth and the convincing Susie Trayling in the title role of Mary Whichello.

The insecure wife of the newest and brashest of knights, Sir Thomas Bodsworth, appropriately played by that long-term Robert Maxwell, Philip York, is mortally insulted by the suggestion that her complexion and Pekinese-like wig make her "an impropriety" (euphemism for prostitute).

As an apology is demanded and refused, a court case of surprising silliness ensues, though many of today's celebs have sued over less.

We also learn a possible reason why director Auriol Smith chose this piece for revival, as Mary tries to buy a baronetcy for her twit of a husband. Now, where have we heard of such a thing recently?

The politics in this circle are of the voluntary kind with the selection of parties based on expediency rather than conviction, which causes a few giggles in these more earnest times. Less acceptably, there is a rather unpleasant air of snobbery throughout as the common types are sneered at not only by their social circle but also their creator.

Mary Goes First presents a good chance to evaluate Henry Arthur Jones a century on. It has to be said that while the play amuses and presents an unexpected feminist angle, his characterisation leaves much to be desired and the work is not out of the top drawer. Thus, a visit might be worthwhile for the curious, as the opportunity to see anything else by this playwright might not recur for many years.

Philip Fisher