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The Heiress Overview  (November 2003)

Based on the novel “Washington Square” by Henry James - Period 1850 - Compared to her mother, the heiress Catherine Sloper seems dull and lifeless, or at least that what her father believes. With her lack of confidence Catherine becomes easy prey for fortune hunter Morris Townsend who deserts her on finding out that she has been disinherited. Two years later, we see Catherine, her father dead, having matured considerably after her experiences and prepared to take revenge on Morris Townsend.

In the intimate settings of the Charles Cryer Studio Theatre, upon entering I was immediately struck by the grandeur of the Sloper living room. Being a studio venue there was no curtain and as you enter the auditorium heading for the seated area, it was almost as if you were walking through a part of the house. The sheer mass amount of furniture, all in period was almost claustrophobic but assisted to give the feeling of scale and wealth. I’m not sure if this was a deliberate ploy or tactic but it worked very nicely. I even recognised the false bookcase and twin chairs from previous productions that I have attended. The open set had three effective entrances and exits. Upstage right was the front door, upstage left was inside the house and the rising stairs through the centre of the auditorium gave perspective to the chambers upstairs. This allowed the audience a total insight to the domesticity of the Sloper household. Even the tranquil piano playing of Marilyn Curtis during the scene changes embodied the mood of the piece and it nicely segued into taped music as the lights went up. Lighting and Sound requirements didn’t seem to pose any particular difficulties. There was a nice dusk lighting effect in the living room and some realistic sound effects, a couple of which though were unnecessarily late.

Costumes were simply sumptuous. I am not sure how comfortable the ladies dresses were to actually wear but they just kept coming bigger and better than the one before. Accessories too were of the necessary standard but if I was being pedantic, Dr Sloper’s gloves looked of an inferior quality and indeed there was a modern designer label on his scarf.

I can see why you were so keen to recruit a props person. With so many period items around, the set also requires attention to detail in the smaller items of presentation. Anna Winkler and her team of suppliers must have hunted high and low for some of these items.

The heiress of the title, who is perceived to be neither intelligent nor pretty, was played very skilfully by Clare Gollop. Clare easily portrayed the naïve ‘Catherine’ in the early part of the play and suitably evolved throughout the performance as her character finds herself courted by the handsome and charming ‘Morris Townsend’. Claire relished her chance to allow ‘Catherine’ to wreak revenge. There was tension and yet chemistry in the match up between ‘Catherine’ and our villain ‘Morris Townsend’. With Morris we never quite knew whether he was genuinely interested in Catherine or whether he was embarking upon some gold digging. This is to the credit of Barry Gollop whose well-judged performance as ‘Morris’ kept us in suspense. Barry is Clare’s husband and they had a nice onstage rapport. Strangely though, the passionate kiss didn’t look as natural as you might of expected! In the dual undertaking of Director and ‘Dr Austin Sloper’, Denis Steer clearly had his arms full. I’ve already praised many of the production values but the suffocating ‘Dr Sloper’ does not appear to be an easy part to play. He is clearly an intelligent man who never appears to have got over the loss of his wife. He has pages upon pages of dialogue and whilst Denis took the odd prompt, his command of stage and dialogue was well demonstrated. Dr Sloper’s sisters ‘Lavinia Penniman’ and ‘Elizabeth Almond’ were brought to life by the zestful pair of Mo Lawton and Sue Davids. Mo in particular was impressive in her scenes as ‘Catherine’s confidante and matchmaker. In the supporting cast, the part of the youthful niece ‘Marian Almond’, was played confidently by Katie Smith. It is sometimes more difficult to play a smaller cameo role than take on a larger part as you don’t get as much time to make an impact. Unfortunately this was proved true of the character ‘Mrs Montgomery’. Christine Wheeler struggled to come to terms with her main scene. In the lower classes, we were given a glimpse of the talents of Sam Bourne in the minor role of ‘Maria’, the parlour maid.

I wasn’t sure about the decision to house the ‘continuity’ gentleman in the front row. I think I would have preferred to have them slightly concealed on either side of the stage. Just a thought.

Stephen Macvicar