Henry Gow (Anthony Newley) lives a life of stifling suburban respectability. The household consists of his nagging wife Doris (Joan Collins), his equally nagging mother-in-law Mrs Rockett (Joan Sims) and his adenoidal daughter Elsie (Prudence Olivier). It would seem that the elder women rule the roost over the hen-pecked Henry, but initial appearances can be deceptive ….
Described by Coward as an “unpleasant comedy in two acts”, Fumed Oak provides Joan Collins with another opportunity to play very anti-glam. Starting the play with no make up and her hair in a scarf, she makes all the early running – effectively the first act is a two-hander between her and Sims.
It’s hard to know who Doris despises the most, as each member of the family receives a lashing from her caustic tongue in turn. The early conversations between Doris and her mother are incredibly inconsequential, which builds up a feeling of ever-increasing oppression. This is also helped by the way that Henry simply sits and eats his breakfast without speaking at all, seemingly resigned to having little say in the way the house is run.
The second act is where the comedy (and the unpleasantness) really begins, as we see a slightly alcoholically refreshed Henry returning home from work to drop the bombshell that he’s leaving them all for a new life abroad (complete with a small fortune he’s been secretly saving for a number of years).
But before he departs, Henry makes sure to insult them all thoroughly, which is where the cruel comedy is generated. Beginning reasonably gently (telling Doris that her hat is common) his abuse gradually starts to ramp up (when Doris counters that she’ll give him a piece of her mind, Henry responds that “it’ll have to be a small piece, Dorrie, I don’t think you can afford much”)
Several of Henry’s choicest insults (“this old bitch of a mother of yours”) are reserved for Mrs Rockett. Joan Sims reacts beautifully to these verbal volleys whilst Newley seems to be relishing every line.
Henry then rounds on Doris again, delighted to finally have the opportunity to speak his mind after years of silence.
What right have you got to nag at me and boss me? No right at all. I’m the one that pays the rent and works for you and keeps you. What do you give me in return, I’d like to know! Nothing! I sit through breakfast while you and mother wrangle. You’re too busy being snarly and bad-tempered even to say good morning. I come home tired after working all day and ten to one there isn’t even a hot dinner for me.
Coward rarely dipped his toe into the travails of suburban life. This – along with the more substantial This Happy Breed – are rare examples, and it’s intriguing to consider Fumed Oak as the dark inverse of the later play and film.
Doris, like Ethel Gibbons, lives her life by behaving as respectably as possible. Frank Gibbons responds to Ethel’s chiding and ministering with good humour, but it’s all too much for Henry who has to break free (there’s shades in this piece of the much later exploits of Reginald Perrin).
“You’re mean, you’re cold and you’re respectable”. Henry’s parting shot to Doris is a three pronged attack. I wonder which he deems to be the worst sin? Judging by the tone of the play I’d guess the latter.
The most effective drama of the series to date, Anthony Newley is top notch, but then so are the others (even Prudence Olivier, who doesn’t have a great deal to do except complain and sniffle).
Whilst some of the other plays in the cycle might come across today as rather twee period pieces, Fumed Oak still manages to be rather discomforting (and presumably was even more so back in 1935 when it was first performed). Another definite success.