The Man Who Pays the Piper is staged in-the-round, making for an intimate and thought-provoking production of GB Stern’s popular 1931 play. The stellar cast bring charm to some of the more humdrum domestic scenes, with the two principal characters Daryll Fairley (Deirdre Mullins) and her boyfriend Rufus Waring (Simon Harrison) capturing the challenges for both men and women of the post-war era.
The play demonstrates well the cultural shift of women’s increasing political agency. The opening scene sees softly-spoken patriarch Dr Arthur Fairley (Christopher Ravenscroft) scolding his daughter Daryll upon her late return home. The interplay between these actors is both playful and petty, highlighting the extreme economic dependency of a young daughter on her father during this period. These Victorian values are presented as endemic across middle-class households like this at the time. The set is appropriately naturalistic, evidently benefiting from a creative team with a keen eye for detail. Daryll implores her father to let her work for a friend of hers in the booming fashion industry, flitting expertly between negotiation, cheekiness and protestation. The production presents a welcome breakdown in cultural norms, yet challenges the audience to think of practical solutions to the challenges the characters face.
The mother (Julia Watson) is ditzy and entirely unable to cope with the death of her husband in the war. The family pecking order is soon subverted, with noise and activity on stage representing the chaos of a household turned on its head. The moments of rebellion from the eccentric Fay (Daryll’s younger sister, played by the versatile Emily Tucker) and her posse bring some much needed energy into a plot-heavy play. The actors remain in character during the complicated scene changes, which are impressively slick. Mullins assumes the authoritative position over the cast, demonstrating well her relentless working habits, despite the character’s fatigue.
The romantic sub-plot between Daryll and Rufus is inevitably realised, with a soul-crushing decline of Daryll’s status of head of the house into simply a housewife. I could tell almost all the younger audience members were outraged at this, yet the play thankfully does not end here. Waring heart-warmingly portrayed the ‘modern man’, offering his wife economic and personal liberty. Both are painfully aware of their roles after marriage and adhere to them. When this expires, the stage is fraught with dilemma that deeply affected audience members. This sort of tension would have best happened much earlier in the night, instead of having two acts running at well over two hours.
The twist that comes at the end of this production was unexpected. Our palate as a modern audience was tested, resulting in surprise within myself when I felt this was not the best resolution either. Despite being long and somewhat laboured in places, this is due the play’s era rather than its performance. The cast had good chemistry, with a solid ensemble to provide the foundation for the showcase of two dazzling actors in Mullins and Harrison. Upon leaving my head was buzzing with feminist thoughts and social conditioning, to the credit of a well-rounded production.
The Man Who Pays the Piper is playing at the Orange Tree Theatre until 13 April 2013. For more information and tickets, see the Orange Tree Theatre website. Image by Robert Day.