Widowers’ Houses*** (Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond)

Posted: January 14, 2015 in Theatre

widowershouses_alexwaldmann_rebeccacollingwood_imagerichardhubertsmith_George Bernard Shaw seems to have been out of fashion for many years, but a major new production at the National is coming up and, to get us in the mood, this is a rare opportunity to see the Irish writer’s debut play, first produced in 1892. The play is a thinly disguised lecture against the evil doings of Victorian slum landlords, that disguise being a brittle story about the on/off engagement between the daughter of a self-made man (now a widower) and a young doctor of aristocratic descent. Shaw’s messages relating to greed and a capitalist system in which even those with good intentions become entangled are still relevant today, but the big difference is that we have now heard them many times and the lack of subtlety with which they are put across here makes them hard to digest. That said, slices of early Shavian wit sweeten the pill and Paul Miller’s handsome in-the-round production is never dull. When all else fails, we can always titter, at the ridiculous character names like Trench (the doctor) and Sartorius (the father). In those roles, Alex Waldmann and Patrick Drury are extremely effective, as is Rebecca Collingwood as the hotheaded daughter, Blanche. However, the production is really given fresh energy by two gloriously over-the-top performances: Stefan Adegbola is inspired casting as Cokane, obsequious, yet pompous and preening, handing out inappropriate advice and assistance to anyone who seeks it; and Simon Gregor makes the scheming lowlife Lickcheese look like a 19th Century prototype for Groucho Marx as he struts around puffing at his cigar. Shaw’s play certainly creaks, but this excellent production is still good for an entertaining couple of hours.

Performance date: 13 January 2015

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