Friday, January 23, 2015

A Shaw thing: WIDOWERS' HOUSES, Orange Tree Theatre

Well last week was a novel experience - I went to a theatre I had never visited before!  Yes, Constant Reader, believe.

I have wanted to visit the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond for a while as they have a policy of staging little-seen and neglected plays but had hitherto put it off.  The news that they were staging George Bernard Shaw's 1892 play WIDOWERS' HOUSES was the spur to finally go.

My default setting for Shaw is "Oh my lord all those WORDS" but on reflection I find that more often than not I have enjoyed what I have seen.  Of his many plays I have seen MRS WARREN'S PROFESSION, HEARTBREAK HOUSE, PYGMALION and SAINT JOAN in the theatre, as well as having seen CAESAR AND CLEOPATRA, MAJOR BARBARA, PYGMALION, SAINT JOAN and THE MILLIONAIRESS on film and television.  Yes that hectoring tone is always lurking in the background somewhere but I have enjoyed the plays seen.

WIDOWERS' HOUSES actually plays like a fast-paced drawing-room comedy but with lurking shadows among the teacups.  Shaw was 36 when it was staged at the Royalty Theatre in 1892 and it proved to be his first major success.  However it is not seen as regularly as some of his other works, I had only heard of one production before in 1970 at the Royal Court with Nicola Pagett, Frank Middlemass, Anthony Newlands, Robin Ellis and a young Penelope Wilton.  Mind you, it has only been staged on Broadway once - and that was in 1907!

Shaw sets up the play as a romantic comedy but then pulls the rug under our expectations.  Idealistic Dr. Trench is holidaying in Germany with his affected friend Cokane and has fallen for one of their fellow travellers Blanche Sartorius but although she is more than happy to reciprocate his feelings, Trench has to win over her stern widowed father, a secretive self-made man.

Back in London, Trench discovers that Sartorius has made his fortune from being a slum landlord, squeezing extortionate rates from tenants in poorly-maintained flats in deprived areas.  Sartorius even dismisses his unctuous rent-collector Mr Lickcheese for sympathising with his tenants' well-being.  Trench's shock is compounded when Sartorius reveals that the doctor's income is drawn from interest accrued from a mortgage on one of Sartorius' buildings!  Trench is further disenchanted when Blanche refuses to live without her father's 'tainted' money that has kept her in the style she has come accustomed to and they call their engagement off.

Four months later Sartorius is visited by a newly wealthy Lickcheese, grown rich by investing in a dodgy property company that renovates tenements to hopefully sell on or knock down for municipal building projects.  Sartorius' buildings - the Widowers' Houses of the title - are of interest to the company and Lickcheese hopes to persuade his former employer to join in the scheme so they can all get rich quick - including a certain doctor who has a mortgage on one of the houses.

Will Trench remain unsullied by the nefarious property deal or will he ditch his principals for a piece of the action and the chance to reconcile with Blanche?  It all leads to a surprisingly modern ending.

As I said, I was quite surprised how much I enjoyed the sharply defined characters and the swift pace.  The small in-the-round Orange Tree auditorium suited the piece well, giving the action an intimate immediacy.  

Simon Daw's design idea of having the playing area surrounded by a frieze of Charles Booth's 'poverty' map of central London helped to visualise the play's themes as these iconic maps were published around the time that Shaw wrote the play.

The Orange Tree's new Artistic Director Paul Miller's direction brought out Shaw's moments of comedy and drama in equal measure and he elicited strong performances from Patrick Drury as the commanding Sartorius, Alex Waldmann as the baffled Trench, Stefan Adegbola as the preeningly pretentious Cokane and it was a delight to see Rebecca Collingwood as the opinionated and 'modern' Blanche.  

We saw her last year in GRAND HOTEL, her final year production at the Guildhall Drama School, where she was an eye-catching and vivacious Flaemmchen so it was a thrill to see her again at the Orange Tree making her professional stage debut. Simon Gregor certainly made a splash as the oily Lickcheese - another of Shaw's working-class characters who refuse to know their place - but the Dickensian caricature he gave us was sometimes at odds with the more restrained performances around him.

As I have said, I was surprised how much I enjoyed WIDOWERS' HOUSES and hope to visit the Orange Tree again - even if the 'age specific' sold-out audience made it's small bar/foyer and narrow staircases a bit of a logistical log-jam.

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