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? Continue reading