Review: Jane Clegg
Image: Finborough Theatre
Alix Dunmore - Jane Clegg
Maev Alexander - Mrs Clegg, her mother-in-law
Theo Wilkinson - Johnny Clegg
Eve Prenelle - Jenny Clegg
Brian Martin - Henry Clegg
Matthew Sim - Mr Munce
Sidney Livingstone - Mr Morrison
"I used to think you were so fine before I married you."
Travelling salesman Henry Clegg has taken his wife, Jane, for granted for most of their marriage, as she endures his dishonesty, infidelity and neglect, as well as his demanding mother.
But when Henry is accused of embezzling money from his firm and his latest affair is revealed, Jane realises she must finally escape her life of domestic abuse for herself and her children ... only to find that for women without money and connections breaking free isn't so easy.
Written in 1913 at the height of the campaign for votes for women, Jane Clegg premiered at Manchester's famous Gaiety Theatre, before transferring to the Royal Court Theatre - where it was compared to Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House.
Dame Sybil Thorndike created the title role and performed it all over the world, including in a BBC Radio broadcast in 1967.
Unseen in London since 1944, Jane Clegg now receives a long-overdue new production, directed by renowned director David Gilmore.
The Finborough Theatre has also previously rediscovered two acclaimed plays by St John Ervine, most notably his play Mixed Marriage in 2011.
Note: two press nights on Thursday 25 and Friday 26th April.
First performed in 1913, the last time this play was seen in London Europe was struggling through the end game of the Second World War back in 1944.
Three-quarters of a century later, the Finborough Theatre has rediscovered this work by St John Ervine - and it's a belter of a play that still resounds with relevance in spite of its seemingly remote Edwardian setting.
It's 1913 and we find ourselves in the meticulously designed parlour of the Clegg family home where all the action takes place.
Living with Jane Clegg and her travelling salesman husband, Henry, are their two children - Jenny and Johnny - and Henry's mother.
At the start, we are deceived into assuming this to be a fairly typical Edwardian home and family, and one where not very much of an extraordinary nature happens.
Though not particularly grand, the living room is comfortable and has the basic necessities.
But it's not long before we start to discover more about Jane's roving husband, who has previously been exposed as a philanderer, having had at least one extra-marital affair that his wife knows of.
Jane, though, now holds the reigns of power in the household, having inherited a sizeable sum of money that Henry desperately wants to get his hands on - and not simply to improve the lot of his family.
His traditionalist mother supports her son's attempts to get a share of the cash, and calls Jane a "hard woman".
That turns out though to be a grossly unfair criticism because the resolute Jane is all too aware of her husband's foibles and intends her inheritance to be used for the benefit of her children.
But when a bookie fetches up at the house demanding money he's owed by Henry, events in this gripping drama take a turn for the worse as the pressure on Henry mounts forcing him to take action that has potentially devastating consequences.
Given the contextual limitations, there's not a great deal of action in this play so Alex Marker's very fine and lovingly detailed set does much to enhance the production, providing a real touch of evocative authenticity.
David Gilmore directs here, exhorting strong performances from both leading actors - Alix Dunmore as Jane and Brian Martin as Henry.
Ms Dunmore's stalwart and determined Jane might at first seem to be rather unbending and unsympathetic towards her husband (and for good reason), but in the last act we find she is willing to bail-out him out and to stand by him even in the face of extreme adversity.
In spite of the parlous position Henry and Jane find themselves in, there are some uncomfortable moments of humour in St John Ervine's piece, especially in the latter stages when Brian Martin's wayward Henry is trying to understand his wife and makes bluntly disagreeable comparisons with her and his now-pregnant (unseen) lover.
There's impressive support from Matthew Sim as the 'honest' bookie, Mr Munce, and Maev Alexander as the mother-in-law, with Sidney Livingstone lending his authoritatively mellifluous voice to the role of bookkeeper Mr Morrison.
And there's commendable work too from the younger members of the cast - Theo Wilkinson as Johnny and Eve Prenelle as Jenny - both of whom reflect aspects of their parents' characteristics.
A supporter of the women's suffrage movement, it's hardly surprising that St John Ervine came up with this riveting story of a strong, intelligent woman pitted against her 'absolute rotter' of a husband.
And little wonder, perhaps, that Sybil Thorndyke opted to tackle the role of Jane on the play's first outing.
But Jane Clegg is not merely a play about matrimonial rights, fidelity or simply a battle of the sexes, for it delves into many themes that make for a still relevant, terrifically watchable and ultimately poignant drama.
Links and related content
ActDrop listing for Finborough Theatre
Our show listing for Jane Clegg
Read our reviews' policy