Each His Own Wilderness – at The Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond

A single mother's struggle to make sure female voices are equal clashes with her son's apathy in this timely but patchy revival, writes Liz Vercoe

A young man in khaki and with a brutal army haircut (Tony, played by Joel MacCormack) lets himself in through a stained-glass front door into what we discover is the hallway of a 1958 London house. The action will remain in this hallway for the remainder of the play. If you want to go deep (and there are plenty of opportunities in Doris Lessing's play) it's a metaphor for transition between the demands of the outside world and the inner life you actually want to live. On the other hand you can't help thinking it's a spectacularly large hall and undoubtedly in the cross-hairs of a mansion tax.

Clare Holman and Milly Boles as feminist friends Myra Bolton and Milly Boles

Next we meet his mother Myra (Clare Holman), who is wearing pedal-pusher jeans and baggy top and looking perfectly lovely to our 2015 eyes. However this is a look that for some reason displeases her son. Strangely he seems rather less concerned with the fact that his near 50 year old mother has in amorous tow 22-year-old Sandy (Josh Taylor), who is the son of his mother's best feminist friend, Milly (Susannah Harker).

Joel MacCormack and Susannah Harker

And here lies the problem for this revival. Today's audiences see things differently. Doris Lessing, writing in the 1950s, was both commenting on male chauvinistic attitudes towards post-war women but also trying to discuss an alternative scenario and outcomes for women as portrayed here by fiercely independent and politically active single mothers Myra and Milly.

Women slopping around in casual clothes with no make up and leaving a few old magazines scattered on the floor would have been a shocking novelty to 1950s' theatregoers. They would have identified with Tony's desire for his mother to "put her face on", tidy the house, and present a respectable front, a "normality" which would have left the audience free to concentrate on his relaxed attitude to finding his mother sleeping with his friend.

Since Myra and her house look perfectly acceptable to us, we lose the psychological impact of Tony's chaotic upbringing, including several "uncles" in his mother's bed, and with it our sympathy. He comes across as pompous and rude and it's easy to side with his mother who also thinks this of him. His case is not helped by his overly clipped 1930s' BBC newsreader diction.
Around the central story in which the ill-chosen, middle-aged love of Myra's life turns up to dangle his barely-out-of-teens fiancee under her nose, the most convincing scenes are captured by Susannah Harker's warrior goddess Milly and, on another moving occasion, Roger Ringrose's Mike, Myra's loving but long put-upon friend. Elsewhere the admirable cast do their best to make their various "battle of the sexes" scenarios believable, but the play tends to feel like a string of "points" about how even well-meaning people trample on other people's souls, about how in the face of chaos people yearn for a predictable life, about female behaviour being dictated by men, and about society's increasing inability to connect with others until we are all selfishly living "each in his own wilderness".

Much of this is, of course, still relevant today and the play's background of the utter helplessness felt under the cloud of nuclear war that dominated the late 1950s and early 1960s shares something with current feelings of impotence in the face of the spread of terrorism and complex world economics that frankly seem beyond any government to understand or manage. And with the general election looming, Doris Lessing also speaks to us down the years about possible reasons for youthful apathy in heading for the voting booths.
Joel MacCormack and Rosie Holden as Tony and Rosie

Liz Vercoe

Photos by Richard Hubert Smith

April 21, 2015