A remorselessly somber play, though punctuated with some joyous (or poignant) singing and dancing, by a new playwright; this is her first produced play — and her first play. It follows the increasingly hard times of a poorly born woman, Martha (Amelda Brown), through the course of her life of poverty and marriage to an ineffectual and volatile working man, a marriage that results in a large family and a descent into the depths of despondency. After a spate in a hospital for the mentally disturbed, Martha is brought home again by her vital and long-suffering daughter Annie (played superbly by the fresh and beautiful Philippa Stanton); but the play ends with her decision to leave her husband and family for good.
If Hartridge has been reading Ibsen, the play is at least not openly derivative (despite the closing scene, reminiscent of the end of A Doll House), though it has some structural flaws reflecting the dramatist’s inexperience. There is a series of quasi-expressionistic private visions of Martha’s in which superegoistic figures from her past appear to her and threaten her; these could have been eliminated with almost no loss to the action and its thematic resonances. And Martha’s departure at the end, suitcase in hand, after her husband has beaten her, is logical enough in itself but lacks a sense of climax and finality. As my companion observed, we need more preparation for this eventuality, in the form of a confrontation of what is involved in leaving — or in staying.
Nonetheless, the play rings true to a remarkable extent. This is a woman who, al through her life long, wanted to be a dancer, but who never had — or took — the opportunity to do it. We see her dance, and she is good; we hear her sing, and hear her two oldest children, Annie and Colin, singing too, and they all are good. This is a family that uses song and dance to mitigate the harshness of life. And life is notably harsh in this part of East Anglia.
But Martha uses song and dance, and the pleasurable fantasy it entails, as a way of avoiding facing the sordid, inexorable reality of her life. There is a chain of secrets about her life that she tries her best to cover up but that have a way of coming out regardless; she lies, she steals, she falls further into debt at every turn. This is no idealized heroine, but a complex, libidinous, well-realized female character who, despite her flaws, draws a large measure of sympathy, partly because of her determination to go on. Experience may serve Hartridge in good stead and move her to more expertly well realized dramatic subjects. She certainly has a flair for the theatre. And so does Philippa Stanton, who has made a good beginning since leaving RADA and who very likely will go on to more important and lucrative roles. Her voice is fine and clear and musical; her sense of timing is excellent for such a seemingly young performer (I estimate 23), and whose presence is strong and consistent even while she involves herself completely in her character.