Simon Jenner in the West End
19 October 2023
Caryl Churchill’s first stage play Owners has proved doubly prescient. Premiering in 1972 it came a year after the Tory Chancellor lifted mortgage restrictions causing the first huge housing bubble only partially punctured by the 1973 crisis. Directed by Stella Powell-Jones at Jermyn Street Theatre in only its second revival, Owners comes at a time of more catastrophic rent precarity, pegged with stratospheric prices but now owner-crippled mortgages too.
Photo credit: Steve Gregson.
Often described as wordy, unlike Churchill’s later, lapidary work, it’s hardly more so than her 1976 masterpiece A Light Shining from Buckinghamshire – where a butcher like Clegg (Mark Huckett, truculent as a seedy Toby Jug) reappears in a briefer role but with similar monologues. There’s certainly more than intimations of Churchill’s work too in Clegg’s wife Marion (Laura Doddington) who transparently anticipates Marlene in Churchill’s 1982 Top Girls.
It’d be truer to say Clegg’s married to Marion, she closing deal after deal as property developer as his family butcher’s is closing down: its grey meat outsold by better supermarket fare. Marion’s a symptom of greed – prices rose fivefold in a few years – but as she says at the end “I might be capable of anything” and that’s after the most murderous of farcical outcomes. Marion’s triumph is as secure as – and more spectacular than – Sidney Hopcroft in Absurd Person Singular.
Cat Fuller’s multiple navy-blue door set with a few props (a counter of meat, a bed, a couch, china-wear and a copper kettle) not only expresses the cheek-by-jowl living of multiple occupancy, but neatly encapsulates the crazed developers’ pincers currently intent on buying up much of Jermyn Street itself. They also express farce, and though it’s not classic Feydeau-style door-slamming farce, its substance is farce in slow motion.
It works in pairing too. Doddington’s ironclad Marion isn’t yet the platinum-plated, more complex Marlene, but she has an undertow with acquiring or abandoning children like her. Churchill sets up two superscriptions before her text. For Marion “Onward Christian soldiers” with its deeply compromised hints of appropriation; and a Zen quote to cover the man she covets. This is fatalistic and maddeningly passive Alec (Ryan Donaldson), with whom she’s had history. As indeed she had with her comically suicidal, soft-power-wielding sidekick Worsley (Tom Morley). In Morley’s hands Worsley emerges as a cross between a Monty Python character and Charles Hawtrey in the Carry On films.
Photo credit: Steve Gregson.
In deadpan bathos but with a hidden moral compass, Worsley proves as much a failure at suicide as Clegg is at dreaming murders for Marion; including weedkiller in strong garlic soup. They dance around each other for mutual use as Worsley’s suicide attempts incapacitate him. Including mistaking Samaritans as an organization to facilitate suicide. It doesn’t work out well for them at all.
If Marion can’t have Alec, she wants his latest (fourth) son with depressed, utterly exhausted Lisa (Boadicea Ricketts). In Ricketts’ pyrotechnic grief, vividly portrayed, Lisa’s someone who despite Worsley’s blandishments discovers her old frenemy Marion’s trying to buy their flat off rentier Mrs Crow. A microcosm of bribes and threats has Lisa sign away her baby in a spiral of mild absurdities including partner-sapping, threats, kidnap, and worse.
Donaldson’s not the passive Alec all this suggests. He’s appropriately Zen-like, strong enough to see off Marion’s aggressive overtures when it suits him, inscrutable in his great no to everything, and surprising. In one sense he might be incapable of corruption, but there’s a shocking moment with his dementia-ridden Mother played with humorous pathos by Pearl Marsland. In one sense picaresque, it’s a play with slow reveals of character.
Mrs Arlington (Laura Woodhouse) has little to do but one bravura performance of someone so maddeningly entitled by their very existence they show Lisa just how appropriated she is. The later Churchill might have made more of her, and Alec’s Mother, but with five core performances it’s a work full of portents told as an uneasy after-dinner joke, as Churchill might put it.
This is a first-rate revival, long overdue, history repeating as farce but told from history, 51 years ago. Sasha Howe and Max Pappenheim provide period music, which firmly locates Owners in 1972, but perhaps tells us how little fundamentally has changed. In that, it becomes paradoxically a timeless instrument of warning.