Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond

Opened 23 March, 2007

John Galsworthy's 1920 drama sees a family of the old-fashioned squirearchy tussling with the commercial nouveaux-riches over the future of a corner of rural England. Land is bought to be exploited, with long-standing tenants losing their homes and even with malice aforethought, as industrial potter Hornblower plans to encircle the home of Squire Hillcrist with works simply in order to drive the "snobs" out. On learning that Hornblower's daughter-in-law has a past as a professional divorce co-respondent, the Hillcrists turn to blackmail to save themselves, regardless of its human and moral cost. It becomes a bare-knuckle fight, hence the period-colloquial title.

There is a suggestion that Galsworthy was really writing about the First World War through the parable of a Loamshire saga; once or twice, there is also a hint of the Irish War of Independence which was being conducted as he wrote it. Time and again, though, I found myself remembering a truism dunned into me for history A-Level: that one of the principal causes of WW1 was simply that, after a certain point, it became too much trouble not to go to war. This seems to be the case equally with Clive Francis's blustering Hornblower, a self-made man who didn't spend too long on the polishing, and Lynn Farleigh's sanctimonious, ramrod-backed Mrs Hillcrist, who is prepared to go far further than her husband (Geoffrey Beevers) in defending their way of life even at the expense of its ethical basis. Neither side can be bothered to make the effort to talk. Even the initially idealistic younger generation find common ground whipped from under them, and drift into their families' polarisation. One way or another, benevolent paternalism is seen to have had its day. The irony is that, from nearly a century's distance, we know that what succeeded it has been the commercial imperative which Galsworthy portrays as almost pantomimic in its villainy.

The balance of our sympathy and expectation may have shifted since its composition, but the fundamental ambivalence continues to chime with us in Sam Walters' characteristically adroit in-the-round production. In particular, the second-act land auction, skilfully presided over by Graham Seed, makes full use of the Orange Tree's layout with audience and actors only a few feet away on all four sides.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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