Thursday, 6 April 2017
by TW Robertson
The Book Of Esther
Caste is like a solid piece of 1867 Victorian furniture brought out, dusted down and polished in this winning production from youthful theatre company Project One. It's a play that's surprisingly shrewd with a deceptive simplicity which masks a sophisticated take on its own literary craft.
Indeed a certain critic named GB Shaw calling it "epoch-making" said at a 1897 revival, "'Caste' delighted everyone by its freshness, its nature, its humanity ... In the windows, in the doors ... in the kettle, in the fireplace, in the ham, in the tea, in the bread and butter ..."
The Honourable George D'Alroy (Duncan Moore), a moustachioed army officer, has transformed himself from backstage Johnny to adoring husband when he marries below his station chorus line ballet dancer Esther Eccles (Isabella Marshall).
George's mother the haughty "Brahmin princess" Marquise De St Maur (Susan Penhaligon) is horrified when she learns of the marriage, rejecting her daughter-in-law who is left almost destitute with a child when her husband goes missing presumed dead on active service in India. Suffice to say, there is a twist and turn before a Happy Ending.
Caste deals in stock characters and styles, melodrama, burlesque and the sentimental, but with knowing self-referential glances and with a claim to pioneering stage management in its use on stage of more realistic scenery and props, "a cup and saucer" drama.
What is also surprising is like Douglas Jerrold's earlier Black-Eyed Susan, Caste turns from melodrama to genuine second act social critique in an unlikely mouth of the workshy drunkard, Esther's father Eccles (Paul Bradley in mutton chop whiskers).
One can even detect a direct line to Shaw's own Pygmalion and other later movements such as the Manchester School and the Angry Young Men generation of playwrights.
Equally this is all pitched with genial humour and a discussion of its central theme of caste or class made more complex by the inclusion of military, colonial, political, financial and inheritance circumstances.
As Captain Hawtrey (Ben Starr), "a swell" and D'Alroy's brother in arms, puts it, "The inexorable law of caste ... commands like to mate with like ... forbids a giraffe to mate with a squirrel ... all those marriages of people with common people are all very well in novels and plays on the stage ..."
Meanwhile would-be shopkeeper Sam Gerridge (Neil Chinneck) takes the boundaries of different stations in life more literally, "Life is a railway journey, and mankind is a passenger - first class, second class, third class".
Robertson uses feisty, flirty quick-tempered Polly (Rebecca Collingwood), Esther's sister and Sam's intended, to conjure up pictures of life outside the Eccles's London home. This not only provides burlesque amusement but gives the audience a sense of panorama, almost like cinema trailers of other types of entertainment.
Charlotte Perkins directs a nicely paced production which takes seriously the social issues without stinting on the laughs deliberately threaded in by the playwright.
We weren't convinced by the introduction of a photo studio element but this is a minor quibble in a very enjoyable hour and forty five minutes which never descends, as it so easily could in less skilful hands, into parody.
Over 50 years ago a young actor, a certain Ian McKellen, grew to appreciate the craft in the drama when he played gasfitter Sam Gerridge. We're now in the 21st century and theatrical metaphors can be unravelled for the audience.
It's part of actor-manager's Tom Robertson's art that he knowingly carves for the audience a tasty large slice of ham, along with barnstorming melodrama but also bread and butter realism. It's a green light for a production which keeps the kettle on the boil to produce a satisfyingly strong and entertaining brew.