Robert Tanitch reviews The Notorious Mrs Ebbsmith at Jermyn Street Theatre, London SW1
Arthur Wing Pinero (1855 -1934), who made his name with a series of popular farces, established himself as a serious dramatist with such problem plays and psychological studies as The Second Mrs Tanqueray in 1893 and The Notorious Mrs Ebbsmith in 1895, both starring Mrs Patrick Campbell.
The Notorious Mrs Ebbsmith has not been seen in London since its revival in 1900 and is chiefly remembered for a notorious scene in which the heroine throws a Bible into a stove and then with a wild scream plunges her hand into the fire to retrieve it.
Agnes Ebbsmith (Rhiannon Sommers), a widow, had such a disastrous, first marriage, that she decides never to marry again. “We have done with marriage, we distrust it,” she says. “We are not now among those who regard marriage as indispensable to union.”
She is living in Venice with a younger man, Lucas (Max Hutchinson), a once up-and-coming Tory politician whom she had nursed back to health when he was sick and who has since abandoned his wife. Agnes wants their relationship to be out in the open. Educated as a secularist, she had made a name for herself as an agitator criticising social conventions. She preached socialism and advocated free love.
Lucas is put out (to say the least) when she tells him that she wants their relationship to be platonic rather than sexual. In truth he would prefer sham reconciliation with his wife and for Agnes to be is discreet mistress in a house in suburbia and for him to be able to drop in for the occasional sex when he has the time.
Lucas’s uncle (Christoper Ravenscroft), who has no illusions about Lucas’s character, dismissing him as an “egotistical boy, a callous, bloodless epicure,” nevertheless wants him to return to political life. Can he persuade him to give up Agnes and return to his wife?
Hopefully, Abbey Wright’s well-acted production, may lead to other revivals of Pinero’s serious plays, such as His House in Order and Mid-Channel.