Saturday, 10 January 2009

Mary Goes First, Orange Tree Theatre

Mary Goes First by Henry Arthur Jones
Director: Auriol Smith
Reviewer: Diane Higgins

The Christmas and New Year season at the Orange Tree Theatre opens with Mary Goes First, a comedy written by Henry Arthur Jones and directed by Auriol Smith. The play was first performed in 1913 and this gives us an entertaining reflection of those times, taking us through the local and national politics of the time and the etiquette required and developing position of women of a certain class in the social order of that era. It was set against a backdrop of the Liberal government of Asquith and the ongoing fight for women’s’ suffrage.

Mary Goes First is truly a comedy based on the manners and social status of the time and written about the clash between the wives of two local gentlemen. One is a professional man and the other a tough talking, newly ‘self-made’ one, who though not born into the upper class has improved his and his wife’s social position by dint of his earnings and his skill in using local and national politics.

The play is set in the drawing room of a young, up and coming lawyer in the northern manufacturing town of Warkinstall. He hosts an evening dinner party. Following the correct social etiquette at the time, the host would offer his arm and be accompanied by the lady guest of the highest social rank, when going into dinner. Mary Whichello is the superior, ambitious and outspoken lady, always previously accustomed to ‘going first’ on these occasions. Her position is usurped at the dinner party by a local arch rival Fanny Bodsworth, a grocer’s daughter who’s husband has been knighted in recognition of his financing and building of a local sanatorium. This rankles and turns Mary against her rival.

In three parallel subplots, there then emerges a series of personal clashes both between the two women and then their two husbands, keeping us amusingly entertained as the play unfolds. At the dinner party, where the new Lady Bodsworth (Claire Carrie) ‘comes first’, Mary (Susan Trayling) is critical of the woman she considers to be a vulgar upstart, with her blond hairpiece and powdered cheeks. She accuses her of being an ‘impropriety’, suggesting she is a “Fille de joie” and the worst of examples for the young ladies employed in Lord Brodsworth’s enterprises.
This ‘impropriety’ jibe results in the Brodsworths threatening to sue Mary for slander and sparks off a bitter social rivalry between the two women.

There are many amusing verbal exchanges, good uses of body language and eye contact between them. Mary at one stage employs the phrase “My dear Lady Brodsworth” several times in a mocking way, each time maliciously poking fun at her rival, who shows her annoyance and embarrassment. Mary seeks to retrieve her position through pushing her husband to better himself (and so herself), against his will, to become the local Liberal MP . Richard Whichello’s main interest is to play golf and his political aspirations soon evaporate comically and are taken on by the eloquent young lawyer instead. Having failed in this plan, Mary tries and succeeds in reinstating an ancient baronetcy for her husband thus recovering her social position through him.

This smoothly moving and seemingly old-fashioned play, particularly in some of its language and expressions, encompasses many modern ideas. It teaches us that over time our society has changed very little. Manoeuvring for social status, political wrangling at both local and national levels and the ways in which honours are bestowed in ‘cash-for-honours’ scenarios, have been and still are very current issues.

The Orange Tree theatre, with the ‘stage’ and actors intimately enclosed on all sides by the audience, lends itself perfectly to this play. All four acts are set completely within the confines of a Edwardian drawing room and we all had the benefit of seeing and hearing the words, ‘asides’, nuances and gestures of the actors in an interesting, almost three dimensional form. Susie Trayling and Claire Carrie are excellent in their roles as social rivals and most expert in playing off each other. The rest of the company are well cast too. All the actors’ enunciation and timings really maximise on the features of the unusual Orange Tree setting in a most skilful way, a real tribute both to them and their excellent direction. Made for a very enjoyable evening.

Photos: Robert Day
Mary Goes First runs until the 30th January 2009
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