The Stepmother

  • Theatre
Critics' choice
Robert Day

Anyone in need of a reminder of just how much feminism has achieved over the last century should see this play, written by Githa Sowerby in 1924.

Sowerby’s own experiences as a female playwright were grist to her mill. Her best-known play, ‘Rutherford & Son’ – currently being performed in her native Newcastle – proved a hit for a writer known only as KG Sowerby: once the secret got out that she was female, some critics changed their minds retrospectively about the merits of her play.

‘The Stepmother’, written two decades after ‘Rutherford & Son’, was only ever given one performance at a private theatre club during Sowerby’s lifetime – a fact that now seems astonishing. In its examination of the relationship between a young orphaned woman, Lois Relph (Katie McGuinness), the feckless man she marries, and his two stepdaughters, the play recalls the claustrophobia and straitjacketing social mores of Ibsen and Chekhov. And its indictment of a society in which a wife can be left entirely at the financial mercy of her husband feels startlingly ahead of its time.

This production, directed by Sam Walters, is beautifully staged: Katy Mills’s set neatly evokes the upper-middle-class echelons of Edwardian and ’20s England. The cast, too, are excellent – particularly McGuinness, whose understated, naturalistic performance makes Lois’s predicament all the more compelling. Christopher Ravenscroft also convinces as Lois’s husband Eustace, a man so unremittingly awful you want to shout boo every time he appears on stage. Laura Barnett

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