Diana of Dobson’s
Written by Cicely Hamilton, 1908
Reviewed at New Vic Theatre – Newcastle Under Lyme
Cicely Hamilton was born in 1872 and for those who are unfamiliar with her work, titles such as Women’s Votes; Marriage as a Trade; How the Vote was Won and A Pageant of Great Women which were all written in 1908 or 1909 give an insight into her commitment to women’s suffrage and later to women’s rights in general, a commitment she continued until her death in 1952.
Diana of Dobson’s is her second play and it focuses on the hardships faced by working women in the Edwardian era and also the discrimination and prejudice related to background, class and affluence.
The audience enter to view of 5 rather austere beds, the dormitory accommodation for a group of shop girls working in Dobson’s department store. As the shop girls get ready for bed, sharing their experiences of the day, we learn that life for a single female shop assistant in the Edwardian era was no bed of roses. Low wages, strict and arbitrary rules, tyrannical supervisors and uncaring owners are the order of the day. For these five young ladies, the only prospect of escape from this life is courtship and marriage. One of the ladies, Diana Massingberd is chaffs at this life, wilful and outspoken; she is frequently fined for “un-business-like conduct”. She is finding life at Dobson’s increasingly oppressive and predicts she will be dismissed within a fortnight.
Diane it transpires was brought up in a comfortable middle class family but was forced to find shop work after her parents died. Tonight she finally has a stroke of luck, when she opens a letter from a solicitor advising that she has inherited £300 from distant cousin. Diana almost instantly makes a decision. Rather than carefully investing her windfall she intends to have a month of “everything money can buy” and most importantly a month of freedom. Disturb by the dour faced supervisor Mrs Pringle for daring to have a gas light burning after 11:00, Diana well and truly burns her bridges with Dobson’s before starting her adventure in Paris, a new frock and the chance to see real mountains.
Two weeks later the action has shifted to the affluent Swiss resort of Pontresina and the Hotel Engadine. Diana, now going as the elegant young widow Mrs Massingberd (because widows have more freedom than unmarried women) has been welcomed into the very upper class circle of the wealthy English “on tour”. With her Parisian couture and apparent wealth, she has already attracted interest. Former guardsman, Captain Victor Bretherton is a pleasant but rather ineffectual specimen whom we learn doesn’t have the income to support his extravagant lifestyle. Victor is travelling with his Aunt, the rather more worldly-wise Mrs Cantelupe who sees Diana as a perfect prospect for marriage with Victor provided that she really does have the income he needs. Diana also attracts the attention of Sir Jabez Grinley, a brusque and down to earth self-made and clearly very successful shop owner.
As the plot unravels, predictable proposals of marriage follow. Diana’s month of freedom inevitably comes to its end and she of course must return to London, but will she be alone?
Mariam Haque portrayed Diana as a determined but always slightly vulnerable woman who made her decisions for her month of freedom knowing there would be a price to pay but not regretting it.
At times Mariam’s dialogue was a little difficult to hear when her back was to my section of the auditorium. One suspects this will improve as the run progresses. Overall I found Mariam’s portrayal effective and convincing.
Adam Buchanan’s Captain, the Honourable Victor Bretherton initially appeared rather one dimensional but through the course of play, starting when he tried to defend his lacklustre seduction techniques to his aunt and continuing when challenged by both Diana and Jabez we saw more depth to Victor and eventually realised that he did have a bit of “Pluck”. A very enjoyable performance.
Brendan Charleson brought just a touch of the manner of Lord Alan Sugar to his portrayal, I particularly enjoyed his blunt proposal of marriage and his “give me a straight answer” approach. I could easily see him describing to the next batch of apprentices how to buy dresses that don’t fit in on the cheap in Shoreditch, put a made in Paris sign on them and “flog” them for 35 shillings to lower middle class ladies who don’t know better.
The whole cast was very strong and although some of the roles were small, the involvement of the full cast in the musical interludes gave the whole piece a strong ensemble feel. I would particularly highlight Anne Lacey who gave the impression she thoroughly enjoyed playing the Old Woman on the London Embankment.
I thought the direction of Abbey Wright was in most respects excellent. Directing a play in the round can create additional complications and Abbey and the Company ensured that the dialogue moved round the acting space, involving the whole audience, without cast movements every becoming unrealistic or over exaggerated. The characters were for the most part well developed and convincing although just occasionally I felt the piece might have benefitted from a touch more passion from the ladies.
The beginning and end of each scene was punctuated with musical hall songs popular at the time the play was written, performed by all members of the cast and this was a wonderful way of keeping the look and feel of the play in the Edwardian era throughout.
The choreography during the musical numbers and the set changes was engaging and the impression given was that the Director, Musical Director Conrad Nelson and Choreographer John Ross had a very clear shared vision. My companion particularly enjoyed the stylised set change involving the bedsteads as the action moved from the dormitory to a Swiss Hotel.
The costumes, furniture and props were all well-chosen and in particular I appreciated the way beds in a circle in the opening scene mirrored the circular bench in the final scene. Credit to designer Ils Evans for the overall look. The lighting was understated but effective.
The programme is full of interesting information about the period, the history of the author, and the lot of the shop girl (often much worse than portrayed in the play). It is very well designed and absolutely worth taking home and reading at leisure.
Overall I would congratulate the whole production team and cast on a simple story beautifully told.
It succeeds on several levels, not least of which was that it helped transport the audience to that Edwardian era and in some ways reminded us of how much has changed and how much of a the Suffragette movement that Cecily was so passionately involved in shaped our society.
Diana of Dobson’s being performed at the New Vic Theatre – Newcastle Under Lyme until Saturday