Stars explained: * A production of no real merit with failings in all areas. ** A production showing evidence of not enough time or effort, or even talent, and which never breathes any real life into the piece – or a show lumbered with a terrible script. *** A good enjoyable show which might have some small flaws but has largely achieved what it set out to do.**** An excellent show which shows a great deal of work and stage craft with no noticeable or major flaws.***** A four star show which has found that extra bit of magic which lifts theatre to another plane.
Half stars fall between the ratings

A tale of love . . . or money

The Heiress

Billesley Players

The Old Rep


CLAIRE Davies had a lot of live up to as Catherine in this celebrated 1947 play by Ruth and Augustus Goetz.

After all it was a role played by Peggy Ashcroft in its West End opening and Olivia de Havilland picked up an Oscar for her portrayal in the 1949 film, one of four the film received. No pressure on her then.

It is a big and important part but she came through with flying colours in a role which demands a slow and almost imperceptible change in her character scene by scene.

When we first meet her she is the painfully shy, awkward and plain daughter of successful surgeon Dr Austin Sloper, played with some style by Graham Mason.  

He manages an easy, laid-back, old-money New York professional with believable mannerisms and a fairly consistent American accent

It becomes apparent early on that he still yearns for his dead wife and blames Catherine for her loss, “she killed her mother by being born”, which hardly makes for a night of happy families. Paternal love is not a strong point in the Sloper household.

Catherine is destined for her own, rather comfortable shelf where she will be left alone with old maidenhood beckoning - except for the one big selling point in her life, her inheritance; $10,000 a year from her dead mother and another $20,000 a year when her father pops his clogs, which, in 1850s New York, when the play is set, is lottery winner territory.

Into their lives arrives handsome Morris Townsend who is just back from Europe where he has spent a small inheritance enjoying himself. He has returned with no money, no job, no skills, no prospects - in fact nothing to offer at all except for a love at first sight for Catherine.


Joseph Wood's Morris though is far too nice for the role. As an audience we have to decide does he truly love little miss plain who no one, including her father, affords a second look, or, is he a devious, ne'er-do-well just out for her considerable fortune.

Wood leaves us guessing. Even at the end we are unsure. His Morris is fawning rather than charming and too polite by half to be a successful con artist, yet the passion needed to be finding love in a trainee old maid is never quite there. We never know him enough to ether trust or doubt him. It is a fine performance but Morris needs a little intrigue in his life, a bit more charm or smarm so we can like him or despise him more confidently at the end.

Pulling the strings, or at least trying to, is Aunt Lavinia, the good doctor's sister, played with a nice touch by Judy Taylor, who dispenses with an American accent in favour of that Americanised English way of speaking favoured by Hollywood stars of a certain age.

She encourages and schemes in a matronly way desperate to find a beau for Catherine while fussing around them all is Maria, the Irish maid played by Tracey Bolt.

The story is simple in that Morris, after a matter of two weeks asks, shy, awkward, plain old Catherine to marry him.

Catherine's father objects, tells her Morris is after hee money, gives her some cruel home truths, and threatens to disinherit her.

Catherine, shattered as her life is expoosed, decides to elope, unwisely telling Morris that her father is going to cut her out of hos will. Surprise, surprise Morris does not arrive with the promised cab to run away to a life of married, if somewhat poorer,  bliss and instead vanishes to California to make his fortune.

Meanwhile the old doc dies without changing his will and Catherine has a more than comfortable $30,000 a year income. It is no surprise then when Morris. still penniless, reappears with explanations of why he is two years late, professing his love for her and still wanting to marry her. That is the dilemma for Catherine in the final scene. Is Morris true or a gold digger.

Through it all was see the metamorphism of Catherine. At first she is tongue tied, awkward and socially inadequate.

She is desperate to please her father, to be as good as her mother. Then we see her start to bloom as she thinks men, or at least Morris, are interested in her and she might even be attractive. But as she grows into herself  there comes the devastation of the verbal attack by her father, the jilting by Morris and them the death of the father she once loved but now hates. Finally we see the result in a cruel, heartless and very rich old maid with feelings for no one, snapping at her servant and  threatening  her aunt with eviction..


Claire Davies made the transition smoothly and believably in a quite remarkable performance.

Fine support was also given by Joan Wall as another sister of Dr Sloper, Elizabeth Almond, Elizabeth's daughter Marian, played by bubbly Samantha Bloxham,  and her future husband Arthur Townsend, the cousin of Morris, played by Stuart Hunt, and finally Morris's sister Mrs Montgomery, played by June Nock.

June, incidentally is a founder member of Billesley Players, which celebrates its 40th anniversary this year.

American plays are not the easiest and accents were a little variable and suffered a touch of Continental drift but that hardly spoiled what was an entertaining production.

A mention too for the excellent set of a Washington Square drawing room designed by Douglas Hart and well done to prompt Iain Neville, who was required on a couple of occasions on opening night.

He was quick and clear, which is what is needed. We all know when lines are, should we say, misplaced, and there is nothing worse than actors straining to hear a whispering prompt who doesn't want an audience to hear  help is needed so has to repeat a line several times before it is heard.

The play, based upon Henry James' 1880 novel Washington Square, appears a little dated these days but director Sheila Parkes has kept a steady hand on things to keep up a reasonable pace and it is a pity the play only has a two night run, it deserves more. To 09-06-12.

Roger Clarke

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