One of the most successful playwrights in the interwar years, Aimée Stuart has recently been ‘rediscovered’ – leading to Nicolette Kay’s revival of the 1940 play Jeannie. This particular play has been compared to a Cinderella story, but while some aspects of that comparison are true, the play also has much to say about the relative ‘spending power’ of women a century ago versus now.
Jeannie (Mairi Hawthorn) has two older sisters: Maggie (Evelyn Adams) and Bessie (Carol Holt). However, as they are both married and live in Glasgow, it’s befallen onto Jeannie to look after their widowed father (Kim Durham). He conforms to the stereotype of the thrifty Scot, keeping a tight rein on the household finances and making Jeannie do EVERYTHING. Still, Jeannie does have some company (apart from the ‘wireless’). Originating from Southend and married to a local man, their neighbour ‘Mistress’ Whitelaw (Madeleine Hutchins) is well-known to them. However, Jeannie’s father thinks Whitelaw’s ‘progressive’ ways are a bad influence on his daughter, with the way she dresses, the absence of a work ethic and spending time at that most ‘sinful’ of activities – going to the cinema.
Following her father’s death, we meet Jeannie’s sisters who have a dim opinion of her. However, Jeannie has a surprise for them – she plans to use her inheritance to go to Vienna and listen to Richard Strauss’ ‘The Blue Danube’ in the city of its ‘birth’. Without hyperbole, it’s accurate to say that Jeannie’s time in Vienna proves to be life-changing and that in some ways her initial journey would be pivotal to her future happiness…
The play is well-cast and the principal characters have a natural chemistry that engages our interest. While Hawthorn’s Jeannie is in some ways asynchronous with the values and experiences of the age (1936), her naivety – coupled with her determination to not sponge on others, but pay her own way – endears her to the audience. Jeannie’s ‘will they/won’t they’ relationship with her travelling ‘gentlemen friend’ Stanley Smith (Matthew Mellalieu) is arguably ‘predictable’, but because they’re so likeable and we see the evolution of their witty their banter (as if they’re really a couple), the pleasure from watching the show isn’t the ‘destination’, but Jeannie’s own character arc.
While Jeannie is undoubtedly a ‘feel-good’ romantic comedy, what makes this modern fairy tale chime with today’s audience isn’t the ‘fantasy’ element, but the references to the ‘drudgery’ of everyday life. Certainly compared with Austerity Britain, Jeannie’s weariness at her frugal existence and her joy at revelling in guilt-free spending will resonate today.
© Michael Davis 2018
Jeannie runs at Finborough Theatre until 22nd December.