Diana of Dobson’s, Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond, Surrey

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OTT are quite the wrong initials for the Orange Tree Theatre. This is an institution modest, enterprising and beloved. Apart from the fact that it is London’s sole permanent in-the-round acting space, it places all British theatre-goers regularly in its debt with (amid an altogether varied repertory) its long-term speciality of reviving rare British plays from the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

I have seen little-known Gilbert, Shaw, Granville Barker and Galsworthy plays there, and important work by their less famous contemporaries too. The fact that Diana of Dobson’s was written by a female playwright, Cicely Hamilton, in 1908 makes it already remarkable, and for its first three acts it rewards all curiosity. Diana is a working girl (14 hours a day, five shillings a week) at Dobson’s department store. Unexpectedly inheriting £300, she decides to spend it all in a single glorious, “royal” month, during which she stays in Switzerland, passing as a rich man’s widow. It is not surprising that she attracts young Captain Bretherton, whose own annual income is only £600.

More interestingly, she also attracts the self-made Sir Jabez Grindley, the kind of employer at whose hands she has in the past suffered: she handles him as an equal. “I’ve known a time when I’d have given my soul for a £5 note,” she tells him, but already, in rejecting his proposal, she knows she has changed. He replies: “Then your soul’s gone up in price.” When she reveals to Bretherton the real state of her finances, he calls her “an adventuress”. She justly replies it is he, pursuing her for her supposed wealth, who has been the adventurer.

Unfortunately, the play winds down to something more conventional between these two. But it is well worth doing. However, it deserves better than the often-flat production that Caroline Smith has directed. Diana (Cate Debenham-Taylor) becomes a two-dimensionally bright, breathy ingénue, Captain Bretherton (Edward Bennett) a conventionally goofy stuffed shirt, and some of the supporting roles are worse. If Hamilton’s play is to matter today, it must be shown to deal in more than caricatures.

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