Allan Monkhouse’s 1911 play Mary Broome follows one emerging ‘mobile family’ of the late Victorian era – upper-middle class people who were able to hire servants. The Timbrells are preparing to celebrate the marriage of the eldest son Edgar; however it is discovered that the younger son Leonard has entwined himself with the housemaid Mary. An hour of Victorian comedy, awkward silences, and unexpected twists ensues.
Katie McGuinness creates a wonderful characterisation of Mary that never loses its heart and soul, drawing on charm and simplicity in such a way that the audience can do nothing but sympathise with this basic but honest woman. Although her thick Yorkshire accent made some of the dialogue a little hard to understand, I feel this emphasised the situation onstage in which Mary struggles to comprehend her flamboyant husband Leonard and his strange world. McGuinness builds from a naïve, manipulated young maid into a strong, self-assured woman who asserts herself in a way not dissimilar to Nora in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, a triumph for both character and audience.
Without a doubt, Jack Farthing provided the perfect portrayal of the Oscar Wilde-esque Leonard Timbrell, charming and with a constant look of mischief and false sincerity that makes him endearingly aloof. Acting almost as the fool in Monkhouse’s piece, Farthing brings the script to life, playing on the idiosyncrasies of Victorian life in a mocking way, that kept the audience audible throughout. It is in the last scene that he reveals he is more than jokes and immaturity, and his desperate, lonely truth is almost heart-breaking as he watches his wasted life unravel.
In an unexpected turn of events, Eunice Roberts comes to the front of the play as Edward’s devoted wife and loving mother of Edgar and Leonard, but is later shown that she is an empty, abandoned woman who finds solace in her encouragement of Mary. Beginning as the stereotypical middle-class woman, Roberts evolves into an open and free friend of her new daughter-in-law. Although never reaching the same extremes as Mary, the audience are rewarded with Roberts’s admittance that she is no longer needed by her sons and she is now able to live again as a woman, not “just a mother”. In a tender, subtle performance, Roberts exposes the nature of Mrs Timbrell and the early signs of independent 20th century women.
The Orange Tree Theatre provides a fly-on-the-wall atmosphere for Sam Dowson’s intimate living room set. Simple but effective direction by Auriol Smith allowed the words to express themselves for the audience, telling a story of life in an unobtrusive but revealing way. Once again, this unusual venue provides a platform for theatre to be experience in a completely new way.
Mary Broome is playing at the Orange Tree Theatre until 23rd April. For more information and tickets, see its website here.