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 The Theatreguide.London Review


Mary Goes First
Orange Tree Theatre Winter 2008-2009

This adventurous suburban theatre has once again rummaged through the theatrical attic and come up with a small treasure.

Henry Arthur Jones' 1913 play is part social comedy, part rush-about farce and part political satire, and it scores in all areas. It may be a little more leisurely in its meanderings than modern taste expects, but slow down your internal clock a bit and you'll have a ball.

The reigning style-setter of a provincial town is upset because a local businessman has been knighted, which means that his dowdy wife is now her social superior. Catty exchanges between the two escalate to the threat of legal action, with an impoverished but ambitious young lawyer caught in the middle. Meanwhile the displaced Mary plots to have her husband stand for Parliament and buy a title that will return her to social precedence.

(The play's title refers to the custom of having the highest-ranking woman led in to dinner parties first, an honour Mary desperately wants back.)

And so we have the comedy of small-town social bickering, the comedy of catty wit, the comedy of a determined wife manipulating her befuddled husband, the farce of having to keep the wrong people from being in the same room together, the satire of men of political principles happily changing parties if there's a vacancy among the opposition, and - with remarkable timeliness - the satire of an appropriate contribution to party funds being the quickest road to a title. And a few other layers and subplots as well.

And they all work - rarely to the point of making you hopeless with laughter, but pretty consistently keeping you amused and happy, enjoying the absurdities while recognising the reality beneath them.

The original 1913 production was a vehicle for star Marie Tempest, and I can imagine a modern star of equivalent power and personality carrying the play to greater comic heights than we get here. But such a star would almost certainly warp the sense of ensemble and across-the-board high quality that director Auriol Smith has created.

Certainly Susie Trayling conveys all Mary's arch bitchiness and determination while also letting us glimpse the desperation beneath. Michael Lumsden is droll as the husband who would really much rather be playing golf, Damien Matthews might show just a little more hint of panic in the lawyer trying to stave off chaos, and Claire Carrie bravely plays all the simpering foolishness of Mary's rival.

The rest of the cast is fine and, as always, the director and company's experience with theatre-in-the-round displays an absolute mastery of this difficult staging layout.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Mary Goes First - Orange Tree 2008