The Schoolmistress: Fun, but not completely frivolous

The Schoolmistress, like most Christmas productions, is undemanding entertainment. But credit nonetheless to the Stephen Joseph Theatre for something that was arguably a gamble.

Miss Dyott in her diva outfit, with a bemused Vere Queckett

If you fancy a bit of theatre between late November and early January, you normally get the choice of pantomimes, pantomimes, pantomimes, pantomimes or pantomimes. Oh joy (that was sarcasm). I appreciate that pantomimes are a big revenue-earner – and yes, it means that theatres can do more of the stuff the rest of us like the other ten months of the year – but over Christmas, you’re whatever the opposite of spoilt for choice is. Some theatres doing “family” plays rather than pantos, but if you’re looking for anything with a target audience over 12, you’ve got to look further afield. And for me in Durham, the closest thing I can find on offer is at Scarborough.

The Stephen Joseph Theatre has varied its Christmas entertainment in recent years, but since 2011 it’s been broadly undemanding plays with the main intention of an enjoyable night out. (Sorry for anyone hoping for something harrowing, but this is the best you’re going to get.) It was Blithe Spirit two years ago, and The Importance of Being Earnest last year, both about as safe as you can get, albeit both productions where I was impressed with the directing. But this year, director Chris Monks hit a problem: Blithe Spirit and Earnest are probably the definitive two plays of this kind. Which one next? By his own reckoning, everything he could think of was unavailable or deadly dull, until he remembered a play he’d been Deputy Stage Manager for back in 1978, The Schoolmistress by Arthur Wing Pinero. And so, here we are. (Coincidentally, Chris Monks suddenly found himself being asked to direct a student production where he got the choice of play, so this is the second time he’s directed the play this year.)

So, enough of that, what sort of play is this? A gripping drama? A heartbreaking monologue? Well, this play is described as a forerunner of St. Trinian’s. I’ve heard a lot of plays described as the forerunner of St. Trinian’s, but with this being 1886 play, The Schoolmistress probably has one of the earliest claims. Anyway, there’s four schoolgirls, and one of them has got secretly got married against the wishes of her pompous Rear-Admiral father. The other three want to throw a wedding reception for the happy couple, but they’d all like men for themselves with with it being an all-girls school that’s a problem. Coincidentally, Miss Dyott, the mistress of the school, recently married the Honoroable Vere Queckett, a supposed aristocrat whose fortune is allegedly all tied up in investments and so has to live off his wife’s income. Also coincidentally, Miss Dyott is moonlighting as an opera diva – have you guessed the genre yet?

Anyway, thanks to these coincidences, Vere Queckett takes the opportunity to pass of the school as bachelor lodgings, but gets rumbled by the girls who hijack the party to use his friends as male guests. But coincidentally – yes, I think we’ve established this a a farce now – one of his guests is the aforementioned Rear Admiral, who, owing to drink, having been at sea for four years and general pomposity, fails to note that the girl who looks a bit like his sister is in fact his own daughter. Meanwhile, the fire insurance hasn’t been paid and one of the servants is playing with fireworks and- … okay, you get the idea.

I am used to Chris Monks doing justice to any play he directs and this is no exception. It’s hardly the most gripping of plays, but the clear purpose of the play was a bit of fun over Christmas, at he does that job fine. There are some very funny characters in this – the Rear Admiral and his pomposity to the point of delusion; the ridiculously jealous new husband who interprets anything as a pass on his wife. And this farce refrains from one cardinal sin: no matter how ridiculous the situation is, the characters themselves must be believable – most bad farces are bad because of the contrived things the characters do to set up the joke. Even so, The Schoolmistress isn’t in the same league as the last two Christmas plays. The mannerisms of Earnest and the power-struggle between ghostly wife and living wife is Blithe Spirit are comedy classics, but The Schoolmistress struggles to advance beyond generic Victorian farce. There is a reason why Wilde and Coward are household names today and Pinero isn’t.

Nevertheless, Chris Monks deserves credit for taking what was quite a gamble when you think about it. Blithe Spirit and The Importance of Being Earnest are about as ultra-safe choices as plays can be, and you can easily get bums on seats with half-decent directing. That was far from guaranteed with a play and writer that most of us have never heard of.  At the post-show discussion there was the suggestion that there might be the start of a Pinero revival. Will there be? Probably not, and any theatre that starts a trend of a forgotten writer surely does so through luck rather than skill. But that shouldn’t be the point of this sort of play. The fact that you can pick out an old play – with no guarantee that it will appeal to a modern audience – and produce it with a good turnout and an audience who enjoyed it is ultimately the achievement that counts.

There was one other interesting observation about this production, and that was the use of SJT’s youth theatre. This play has a problem that this had a cast of sixteen (a legacy of the days when the stage crew doubled up as the supporting cast). Even after doubling parts and sharing actors with their simultaneously-running children’s production, that still needed another nine actors, with nine professionals financially out of the question. So three of the parts were given to teenagers from the youth theatre.

Why is this interesting? Because whilst it’s commonplace to do this with children, it’s almost unheard of for adult characters in a fully professional theatre. And yet Equity were quite happy to allow three of the parts to go to amateurs (or at least actors paid much less than the Equity-agreed professional rate). That was a quite reasonable and pragmatic decision on Equity’s part, who presumably recognised it was either this or no play at all. The squeeze on theatre subsidies is far from over, so this may not be the last we hear of this. For better or worse, it could be that the biggest watershed broken by The Schoolmistress is the use of amateurs in professional plays. And thanks to Chris Monks’s directing, it’s hard to tell the difference.

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