The Stepmother - Minerva Theatre, Chichester

Will Keen and Ophelia Lovibond. Pic by Catherine Ashmore
Will Keen and Ophelia Lovibond. Pic by Catherine Ashmore

Agatha Christie observed that certain cliches belonged to particular types of fiction.

She cited the ‘bold bad baronet’ and ‘the body in the library’ but could equally have included the ‘wicked stepmother’ in the list.

Githa Sowerby’s almost forgotten play no doubt chooses a title which teases with this preconception - then resolutely turns it on its head.

In 1924 when it was published it was as robustly surprising as it was non-conformist. Today, its power to campaign for women’s rights remains undimmed despite the dust that has gathered on the script.

This stepmother Lois Relph (Ophelia Lovibond) far from being wicked is entirely the victim both of a Victorian husband who is as devious as he is financially obtuse - and the chauvinistic age in which she lived.

That she rises above both, prepares to sacrifice much of what she believes she has so her elder stepdaughter can find true love, and establishes a flourishing dress-making business, singles her out as a champion of women’s rights in suburban Surrey.

Set in two snapshots of time - 1911 and ten years’ later - the play is not without its limitations nor some cliches of its own.

A scene in which the two step daughters make a pact never to mention an indiscretion observed is bizarrely melodramatic.

However, Lovibond radiates an independence which is as potent as it is innocent. While Will Keen as husband Eustace Gaydon is the real scene stealer.

Agatha Christie rarely created a monster as repellent as this cowardly, unctuous bully.

Above all else, this stepmother proves that the most effective cliches are those which are resolutely debunked.