The Skin Game

John Galsworthy
Orange Tree, Richmond
(2007)

Production photo by Robert Day

The Skin Game is a prime example of what Ken Tynan in derogatory mode christened the Loamshire play. The disease of constant plays of this type stifled theatrical imagination for decades. However, on an occasional basis, with someone like Sam Walters at the helm, they provide splendid entertainment.

John Galsworthy's plot is positively Chekhovian - a case of paternalism having to give way to commercialism, but not without a fight.

The landed gentry of Deepwater have run the place since the Stone Age. Their ethos is based on honour and so, when the nouveau riche Hornblowers move on to their patch, the poor old, gouty Squire Hillcrist (Dodo to his sparky daughter), played by Geoffrey Beevers, is easily diddled.

Some might say that they had it coming to them, with their odd ways and quaint lingo. However, Clive Francis' caddish Hornblower is so odious that, against the odds, you are soon rooting for the rich bloke.

It helps that the first battleground in the class war is the eviction of a pair of honest serfs. From there, the next fight is over the view from the Hillcrists' pile, the desecration of which is clearly an abomination. That leads into a superb auction scene in which Graham Seed builds the tension to a "dastardly" ending with the expertise of a true auctioneer, even if there was a suspicion that he took two consecutive bids from the same person on the opening night.

Temperatures rise after the interval as Chloe Hornblower, the old man's daughter-in-law (played sympathetically by Charity Reindorp), tries to hide a secret. This is so heinous that it cannot be mentioned in front of Miriam Hughes' lovely, modern Jill Hillcrist, and were we rash enough to name it, would undoubtedly shock our readers.

An unholy alliance of Lynn Farleigh as Jill's rather unscrupulous mother and Dawker the heartless family agent (Richard Hollis) turns the screw using a potent combination of blackmail and bribery. Eventually the good (rich) guys win the day with horrid Hornblower sent on his way. Having lost their honour in the dirty tricks campaign though, the writing is on the wall for the Squire and his peers.

On a surface level, Galsworthy's 1920 melodrama is a well-made play packed with cliché. Its moral basis is unfashionable almost a century on but it is lovingly staged around Tim Meacock's simple but attractive set and the acting, particularly in the main parts, draws in an appreciative audience.

More than anything, this is great fun and shows us a society that is now (thankfully) long gone. The Skin Game may not be Chekhov but it provides a splendid two and a half hours of escapism.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher