The Stepmother, Minerva Theatre, Chichester, until September 9.

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

Will Keen gives the performance of the season so far as a villain so villainous he’s utterly fascinating.

At times he’s so foul he’s funny – but only if you let yourself fleetingly forget the ghastly cruelty with which he protects his self interest at every turn. If he had moustaches, he’d twirl them. If he had a railway track to hand, he’d tie you to it.

He’s wheedling and manipulative; emotional blackmail is his stock in trade; and he remains completely blind to his failings, sexist through and through, absolutely everything the fault of his wife – an equally fine performance by Ophelia Lovibond in a part he inevitably overshadows.

In Githa Sowerby’s drama, Keen is Eustace Gaydon in early 1920s Surrey, a man who comes up with seemingly the perfect plan when his sister leaves her fortune to a hapless creature she rescues. He marries her… and then fritters the lot away.

Meanwhile, orphaned Lois grows in personality and becomes a successful businesswoman. When one of her step-daughters needs her support, Eustace’s dastardliness is slowly uncovered. Keen’s brilliance is that he makes it essential viewing.

You gasp at his domineering, self-justifying ways; you giggle awkwardly at his hideous sexism and total selfishness; but you simply can’t take your eyes off him in his fury and desperation, twisting everything against Lois in his blind refusal to take responsibility for anything.

The sparks fly in a compelling second half which amply rewards a first half which is maybe just a touch slow starting. But this is quality drama. Be patient, and the confrontation, when it comes, is superbly played by two actors at the top of their game.

Whether the part of Lois is maybe just a touch underwritten or whether it’s simply that Eustace is so dominant, it’s difficult to say, but any thoughts that a play is generally forgotten for a reason are soon dispelled. This one’s simply slipped through the net.

For all the obscurity it’s drifted into down the decades, The Stepmother remains a piece with something powerful to say – and fine performances all round deliver a night that will linger long with its audiences.

There’s no a weak link in a terrific ensemble, all the characters striking and well played, everything masterminded to near perfection by director Richard Eyre.

The black gauze you have to totter round to get to your seats is unfortunate – unless, of course, it’s trying to tell us that something very dark indeed is about to unfurl.

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