At first glance the title suggests a play about a Yankee poker fraud but, for John Galsworthy, the ‘skin game’ meant the abandonment of civilised values, when the interests of the landed gentry - represented with solid decency by Geoffrey Beevers’ Squire Hillcrist - come into conflict with the march of industrial progress.
Clive Francis plays Hornblower, a pragmatic but ruthless millionaire who plans to extend his pottery works across a greenfield site, thus blocking the Hillcrists’ cherished view with his kilns and tall chimneys. But the Squire’s wife - portrayed by Lynn Farleigh like Trollope’s domineering lady bishop - is an outraged Nimby prepared to use a nasty little secret about a member of Hornblower’s family to force him to back down.
First staged two years after the Armistice of 1918, it was thought to be an allegory of the Great War. But, sumptuosly revived by Sam Walters, this is quite simply a rattling good melodrama, a well-made play with the potential for tragedy, unfairly neglected for more than 70 years.
Galsworthy cleverly sustains suspense across three acts, especially in a crucial land auction led with brilliant timing by Graham Seed as the astute auctioneer, coaxing up the bids to breaking point for both parties, but leading to a surprise result.
Among a dozen meaty roles for a tiptop cast, there is an outstanding performance from Charity Reindorp as Hornblower’s pregnant daughter-in-law, a sweet girl with a troubled past, terrified that her doting husband (Edward Bennett) may discover her secret. And there is even a healing Romeo and Juliet pairing for Miriam Hughes and Dudley Hinton as the youthful best of enemies.