Arthur Wing Pinero (1855-1934), a contemporary of George Bernard Shaw, is not exactly a household name these days in spite of being one of the most prolific and popular playwrights of his time with an oeuvre that included light farce, sentimental comedies, and ‘problem plays’ about contemporary society. Like Shaw and Ibsen, Pinero had a particular interest in the role of women in Victorian and Edwardian society, the most famous on the subject being The Second Mrs Tanquery, which was referenced by Hillaire Belloc in his poem about Matilda who told such dreadful lies (indeed, I never realised that it was a real play before doing my research for The Thunderbolt). The female characters in this play are shown to be grasping vultures (but no more so than their husbands), desperately nervy and almost too good and forgiving to be true. It is the illegitimate daughter who has far more class than any of her ‘legitimate’ relations.
The Thunderbolt could probably be best described as a family drama filled with unpleasant and desperate characters satirising greed, petty rivalries and the desperation of keeping up appearances in the fictional Midlands town of Singlehampton. At nearly three hours long, some of the long-winded passages could be trimmed, but it refrains from the tedious philosophising that certain Ibsen and Shaw plays suffer from and has an agreeable lightness of touch.
This play works beautifully from being presented in the round as the audience steps through the late Mr Edward’s library (designed by Sam Dowson) to get to their seats. Set changes are deftly handled by the cast re-arranging the furniture to create a whole new room. The dining room table in Act II is revealed to be three separate cabinets that form part of Mr and Mrs Thad’s drawing room. Very simple, but so effective.
The Mortimores have to be one of the most ghastly families in fiction. The sudden death of the eldest brother Edward Mortimore, a wealthy brewer who was estranged from the rest of the family has his three surviving brothers and one sister and their spouses descending en masse, calculating what they believe to be their rightful inheritance as next of kin to the last penny. The introduction of Edward’s lovely illegitimate daughter Helen (Grainne Keenan) temporarily complicates the celebrations. Helen refuses to accept an allowance from her newly discovered relations, determined to make her own living as an artist through the invaluable education that her father ensured she received, in spite of being deeply hurt not knowing whether her father meant to provide for her or not. The Mortimores are only too happy to respect her independence.
The acting amongst the entire cast is impeccable, including Geoff Leesley as bluff family spokesman and property developer Mr Jim and David Whitworth as local newspaper editor and insufferable pedant Mr Stephen. Brenda Longman and Julie Teal make the most of their roles as their sour wives. The sole sister Rose (Janet Spencer Turner) is an aspiring London society hostess and her husband Colonel Ponting (Osmond Bullock) might actually be the most avaricious of the lot.
The society of Singlehampton is one in which to be a grocer’s daughter is a fate worse than death, evidenced in the abuse that youngest brother Thaddeus’s wife Phyllis receives from her in-laws. Natalie Ogle excels in the role of this complicated woman who is deeply vulnerable and scarred from the years of cruelty. She is well supported by Stuart Fox as her husband. The very fact that Thad and Phyllis love each other and had the spirit to rebel by getting married sets them apart from the other Mortimores.
While I am not entirely sure if The Thunderbolt is a lost ‘masterpiece,’ it retains its power to expose the timeless themes of greed, hypocrisy and social snobbery in a quietly angry way. It is impossible not to feel indignant when Mr Jim grovels to Helen, stretching her generosity to the limit. It could hardly be better served by Sam Walters’s stylish production and the flawless ensemble cast. I am still not certain as to whom (or what) the ‘Thunderbolt’ of the title refers- perhaps it is the way in which the Mortimores’ smug complacency is suddenly threatened by public scandal. Of course they’ll never appreciate Helen’s compassion that protects them from this, but Pinero must be suggesting that she is the richest in the end, being the only one who can move forward with a clear conscience and build a life to be proud of.
The Thunderbolt is playing at the Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond until October 2nd 2010. For more information and to book tickets, please visit http://www.orangetreetheatre.co.uk/