This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub: http://www.thereviewshub.com
In the mid-Victorian era, with the Industrial Revolution in full swing and an unamused Queen on the throne, British theatre audiences still took time to to have a good laugh. TW Robertson’s Caste is here getting a 150th Anniversary revival and showing every year of its age becomes an integral part of its charm.
Reportedly much admired by George Bernard Shaw, the play deals with issues that were later to become regarded as Shavian and it is not difficult to find links between the two writers’ works. The opening scene has a lovestruck George d’Alroy being warned by fellow army officer Captain Hawtree about the dangers of crossing class (or caste) lines, pointing out rather inaptly that a giraffe would not be a good match for a squirrel. Undeterred, George pursues lowly Esther, a dancer whose unruly father, Eccles, does very little apart from drinking and gambling. Shades of Pygmalion?
Robertson’s comedy targets pomposity and hypocrisy so that, even if specific details in his play have changed beyond recognition, the underlying humour remains intact with age. As the plot unfolds, George and Hawtree are both posted to India and George’s snooty mother, the Marquise de St Maur, arrives on the scene to vent disapproval of Esther and disgust at her polar opposite, Eccles. Georgia de Grey”s simple set design leaves the stage uncluttered and eye-catching costumes give the production the perfect period flavour.
Duncan Moore’s George and Ben Starr’s Hawtree are genial toffs and they combine with Isabella Marshall’s sweet, sincere Esther to give the production the solid setting amid which four delightfully comic cameo performances are allowed to shine. Rebecca Collingwood is effervescent as Esther’s spirited sister Polly, the perfect match for her suitor, Neil Chinneck’s earnest Sam whose decency and work ethic make him at least the equal of his social “betters”. Paul Bradley goes gleefully over the top as the seedy Eccles and Susan Penhaligon, sneering and grimacing as the Marquise, gives us a battle axe who could easily survive 15 rounds with Lady Bracknell.
Yes, the plot creaks and the dialogue jars, but the glory of Charlotte Peters’ bubbling revival is that it transcends all the play’s dated theatrical conventions and treats Robertson’s work with the respect that would be afforded to a more familiar classic or a piece written yesterday. It builds to a final scene that is hilarious by any standards, ancient or modern, suggesting that maybe even Queen Victoria herself would have cracked a smile.
Performance date: 3 April 2017