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The Stepmother review at Chichester Festival Theatre – ‘a feminist triumph’

Will Keen and Ophelia Lovibond in The Stepmother at Chichester Festival Theatre. Photo: Catherine Ashmore Will Keen and Ophelia Lovibond in The Stepmother at Chichester Festival Theatre. Photo: Catherine Ashmore
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The credit for unearthing this 1924 play rests with Richmond’s Orange Tree Theatre, which staged the UK professional premiere in 2013. Richard Eyre’s utterly compelling revival for Chichester Festival Theatre should ensure it doesn’t disappear from view again for long.

In lesser hands, Githa Sowerby’s exposure of female financial dependence set at the dawn of electricity could become black-and-white melodrama. Eyre and his fantastic cast allow excitement and consternation to build without ever compromising subtlety.

Ophelia Lovibond is luminous as the stepmother, Lois, a young career woman described by the family lawyer as “clever… but not quite clever enough”. At 19, Lois was conned into marriage by Eustace, when he learned his family fortune was coming her way. While she has built up her dressmaking business, he has secretly squandered her inheritance. Lois and her two teenage stepdaughters are now on the verge of bankruptcy – though Eustace insists what the wife doesn’t know won’t hurt her. 

Will Keen is phenomenal as the rotter husband, lively with patriarchal condescension or convulsing with impotent rage. The whole production is animated with trapped energy. For scene changes, the Surrey drawing room is encased, like an aviary, in a cube of thick gauze.

It was Eyre who urged Sowerby’s first play into the 20th-century canon, when he invited the young Katie Mitchell to direct Rutherford and Son for her National Theatre debut. As Lois and her stepdaughters regroup and reconfigure in the touching final scene, this also feels like an important moment for feminist theatre.

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Richard Eyre’s revival of Githa Sowerby’s lost 1924 play is a feminist triumph