Review: The Stepmother lays bare the gender gap – then and now

Lois (Claire Morley) and manipulative husband Eustace (James Martin) in The Stepmother
7 Mar 2014 @ 2.15 pm
| News
Lois (Claire Morley) and manipulative husband Eustace (James Martin) in The Stepmother
Lois (Claire Morley) and lover Peter (Simon Arm-Riding) in The Stepmother

Review: The Stepmother by York Settlement Community Players
Venue: York Theatre Royal, March 6

The Stepmother is about a woman who struggles to take charge of her own destiny and set herself free from exploitative mechanisms disguised as love.

An unsung play by Githa Sowerby, it has been revived by York Settlement Community Players for International Women’s Week in York.

The play starts with a prologue in which we get to know greedy Eustace Gaydon (James Martin) and fragile young Lois Relph (Claire Morley).

She receives an unexpected inheritance from Eustace’s sister, which makes him furious about the risk it poses to his standard of living.

Putting on a mask of kindness, Mr Gaydon offers Lois protection. Ten years later, we find the couple married and we discover she has managed to start a successful clothing business, a rare achievement for a woman in the early years of the 20th century.

Lois is clever, hard working, skilled and she could easily be an independent woman. Unfortunately though, she has allowed her husband to gain control over her finances and her work is reduced to a way for him to get extra cash.

When one of her stepdaughters, Monica (Anne Soden) decides to get married and financial arrangements have to be put in place for the occasion, Lois discovers her fortune has gone, and she doesn’t own anything of the capital she has worked so hard for.

Through a tight series of arguments and discussions, Lois is forced to take a brutal look at reality.

Despite being in a situation in which she is undoubtedly a victim, she can’t help but blame herself for having accepted the love of her neighbour and loyal friend Peter (Simon Arm-Riding) and she is terrified of losing the affection of her two beloved stepdaughters.

To her surprise, the two girls will show her the true meaning of love, understanding, and feminine solidarity.

Getting married: stepdaughter Monica (Anna Soden)
Getting married: stepdaughter Monica (Anna Soden)

The Stepmother depicts a far too common situation for women finding themselves on the intersection of multiple responsibilities, sacrificing their own happiness to adapt to the world requests and using an incredible reserve of strength in doing so.

Women looking to forge their own path in life come up against endless assumptions – that they would be unable to keep business and emotions separated, to save money, to handle the dangerous consequences of working too much, smoking too much, talking too much, and generally aspiring to more.

Director Maggie Smales believes this difficult dynamic of self expectations and external pressure is still very much alive for women, in a world where they remaind behind their male counterparts in terms of wages and professional rewards.

A rich and convincing performance by Claire Morely keeps together a play that shows a wide range of emotional tones and a good interplay between characters.

Equally remarkable is the performance of Aunt Charlotte by Pat Riley, who is a connoisseur of Githa Sotheby’s works and her biographer.

A clever design transforms the stage into a multidimensional space, which keeps as a central core the coloured windows of Ginevra, the business Lois has created and around which the play unfolds.

The Stepmother gives women an understanding into how hard we might be on ourselves without even realising it, and men insight into how times have not yet completely changed.