Arthur Wing Pinero was a major figure in Victorian and Edwardian theatre, both as an actor and especially as a prolific playwright. His comedies were extremely popular and he had a long and successful career. In spite of this his work isn’t often seen today but there was a chance to see The Schoolmistress, one of his early comedies from 1866, at the Stephen Joseph this Christmas and New Year. It was my first Pinero play in well over thirty years of regular theatre going so it was an interesting prospect, even though it probably wasn’t going to be my kind of thing. The story concerns two wives, the schoolmistress of the title and an admiral’s wife who finally turn on their selfish husbands and enjoy some freedom and some delightful young ladies who enjoy being high spirited with their young governess while their schoolmistress sneaks off to a secret life on stage for a while. There is fire, farce and a lot of Victorian pomposity to be ridiculed and while it is slow to start, as plays of this era often are, once it gets going in the second act there is fun to be had. It must have delighted it’s early audiences. In an era when polite behaviour, decorum and status was understood implicitly and closely guarded, a world where there were secret husbands and questionable behaviour would have seemed very daring. I’m sure that the middle class theatre going women, who mostly spent their time dutifully running a household, loved seeing the women on stage giving the men their comeuppance. Some of this frisson has been lost today, and in spite of a very good production the play doesn’t quite work for a modern audience, but it was still an interesting period piece to watch.
There are some delightful performances to enjoy. I admired Richard Teverson as the Honourable Vere Queckett, the feckless husband of the schoolmistress, and Peter Macqueen as Rear Admiral Archibald Rankling very much. Both performances were very cleverly controlled. I loved the moment when Vere got up from his chair, spun round and sat down again- much harder to do than it looks- and a lesser actor would have turned the Admiral into a caricature. Some of the other comedy performances didn’t quite take off but the young ladies, led by Catherine Kinsella’s sparky, fun loving governess looked gorgeous and worked well together. Sadly Pinero makes the schoolmistress of the title, Miss Dyott, who is nicely played by Sarah Moyle, wait too long for her moment but when it came she took it with great gusto.
I just wish this cast and the director Chris Monk had not had to work quite so hard on a play which really didn’t do them justice. I am glad that the matinee I saw was pretty much sold out but a few people left at the interval and I certainly don’t think that this was down to the production but to a play which has probably had its day, however much work you put into it.