on Monday 16 March for Loaf Magazine
A romantic comedy in four acts, Diana of Dobson’s is a feminist assessment of wealth and its effects on everything: love, location and personal liberty. Hamilton challenged the social conventions of her time, a remarkable all-rounder relatively unknown, penning an honest representation of the ‘unseen’ working women of Dobson’s Drapery Emporium.
Left penniless after the death of her Father, Diana is resigned to a life of underpaid, shop-girl drudgery. Employed at Dobson’s Drapery Emporium, Diana is one of six ‘living-in’ shop girls on ‘five bob a week’. Although representative of the harsh, mundane conditions of Edwardian wage-slavery, Diana speaks with a sense of both urgency and wit that simultaneously highlights the realities of wealth-ambiguity with a much-needed comedic rhetoric; a protagnosist with purpose, grit and life. Diana unexpectedly inherits £300, choosing to spend her inheritance recklessly on an indulgent trip to Switzerland. Act 2 and Act 3 descend into the absurd, introducing the eccentric characters of the upper-classes and Diana’s love interests. Between the class-consciousness of Mrs Canterlupe and Mrs Whyte-Fraser, the representations of capitalism and economic consumption in Sir Jabez and Captain Bretherton, and Diana’s failed attempt to navigate through a world of decadence, Act 4 ends with her eventual downfall to a life of extreme poverty and destitution.
The production team for Diana of Dobson’s have clearly taken an enormous leap of faith to put on a production quite so ambitious as this one, but there’s no denying the pay-off. The play satirises the sexism and classism inherent in Edwardian ‘polite society’ through the story of outspoken and rambunctious Diana Massingberd (Poppy Goad), a shop-girl working in a London department store.
Discontented with her place in life as a penniless spinster, when Diana comes into a small fortune she whisks herself away to Switzerland for one glorious and indulgent month. There, she pretends to be a wealthy widow to allow herself more social mobility among the rich guests lest they discover her true identity. Receiving two proposals and accepting none, Diana refuses to leave behind her Dickensian but independent life as a working woman in exchange for a rich husband and no personal liberty.
Goad could not be more perfectly cast as Diana. Her fiery ferocity is almost overwhelming; her delivery of the climactic speech incredible, impassioned, utterly staunch. In this final confrontation, Diana refuses Victor Bretherton’s (Charlie O’Brien) proposal, chastising him for believing the only worthwhile thing one can offer society is wealth - how dare he look down on her for contributing to society by working for a living! O’Brien’s retort to this, wrenched between anger and passion, is equally stunning; their chemistry on stage is absolutely intoxicating. The audience almost want Diana and Victor to have a happily ever after - until, of course, they remember that the closing feminist message of not needing to depend on a man is much, much more important than a wedding.
It is fascinating to see a 100-year-old work convey such a powerful message about women’s rights, toxic gender and class stereotypes. Nonetheless, it is the high production value and attention to detail that elevate this performance to new heights, immersing us into Diana’s world. There’s no word for it but ambitious.
Walking into the theatre, even a seasoned Bedlamite will hardly recognise it in its transformation into a theatre in the round. An inspired, but notoriously difficult, stage style; it is expertly carried off. The audience are flies on a wall - just as a satire requires - observing and criticising Edwardian society from the outside looking in. We are further drawn into this world by the smallest of details, like the way the decorative bulbs that light the stage twinkle in the night-time and glare brightly in the day. The costumes too are delightful; long skirts swishing and corsets cinching like something out of Pride and Prejudice.
EUTC’s production of Diana of Dobson’s is, in short, superb. This is Bedlam Theatre like you’ve never seen it before - quite literally, given the ambitious theatre in the round set-up. Diana’s flawless execution smashes through the ceiling of what we’ve come to expect to see in this chilly converted church.
on Monday 16 March for FreshAir
Everything’s coming up roses for Diana Massingberd.
An unexpected inheritance of £300 - £36,000, on the Edwardian exchange rate – lets Diana ditch the drudgery of Dobson’s Drapery Emporium. Eve Simpson’s live score narrates her pursuit of ‘new sensations’ - from ‘Bread and Roses’ in Clapham, to ‘La Vie En Rose’ in Switzerland. Blushing hues warm the stage. Diana dons a flowery number with matching waistband. Even the flower vase is printed with roses.
Directors Simpson and Elsie Greenwood set out to prove that, beyond their daily bread, working people deserve the roses of opportunities and aspiration. They haven’t overworked the message. Poppy Goad blooms as the complex, grounded Diana. Refusing to save her money, she is not impulsive, rather conscious that her funds – and freedom – are finite. Her principles remain steadfast. She despairs the ornamental class’ blasé attitudes towards soups, glaciers, and economics. She cannot buy into their rapacious tendencies, or wed for the sake of continued financial prosperity. Her ‘crowded hour of glorious life’ is just that, and Goad only stretches her arms – like a Massingbird – whilst she can.
Cicely Hamilton’s 1908 play is remarkably nuanced and relevant in its shadings of gender and class. Stereotypical material desires (shoes!) are dwarfed by Diana’s grander desires to travel, or sack her oppressive boss. Male condescension is cleverly problematised. Joshua Garrett’s Jabez is peacocked in both economic obliviousness and hairstyling, whilst a pinched-cheek Charlie O’Brien embarks upon faux-Orwellian tramping. Yet, Diana’s women are near equally complicit within the oppressive patriarchy. Ruby Loftus’ Cantelupe is aggressively avaricious, ‘advising’ her hysterical nephew between mistrust and marriage proposals. Like Diana, Goad is nevertheless the ensemble’s strongest character.
Subtle visuals accompany the recurrent rose motif. George Manchester and Savannah Sullivan set a pink-panelled platform in the round, reflective of the cyclical narrative and sociopolitical context, and perhaps Diana’s own persistent values. In a flurry of monochromatic skirts, corsets and chatter, the shopgirls circulate in transition between the plainness of the first act, to a tap dance in a Parisian café.
Perhaps Bedlam needs this altogether different stage, to platform Simpson and Greenwood’s refreshingly ambitious and considered production.