Jelena Sofronijevic reviews

Diana of Dobson's

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.

Diana of Dobson’s runs at the Bedlam Theatre until 14 March 2020.