Arms and the Man (Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond)

Posted: November 25, 2022 in Theatre

Photo: Ellie Kurttz

Writer: Bernard Shaw

Director: Paul Miller

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

It comes as no surprise that Paul Miller has chosen another Bernard Shaw comedy to mark the end of his tenure as Artistic Director of Richmond’s Orange Tree Theatre. In recent year’s, Miller has done more than most to confound perceptions among some modern theatregoers that the Irish-born playwright’s brand of humour with a social conscience has gone past its sell-by date. First performed in 1894, Arms and the Man mocks warfare, class, wealth and romance with equal bite and this sparkling revival makes it all feel fresh and new.

The three-act play is set during a brief 1885 war between Bulgaria and Serbia, which has Austria and Russia meddling on the sidelines. Shaw eyes Central European politics with some prescience, bearing in mind what the 20th Century and beyond would bring. With her father and fiancé away fighting for Bulgaria, Raina, girlish and excitable as played by Rebecca Collingwood, is at home with her mother Catherine (Miranda Foster) and the household servants, when a dashing young soldier breaks in through her bedroom window. He is Bluntschli (Alex Waldmann), a Swiss mercenary fighting for the Serbs, who has a passion for chocolate creams.

Raina gives refuge to her “chocolate cream soldier” and, inevitably as this is a prototype romcom, she becomes captivated by his swashbuckling charm and falls for him. Peace breaks out, due, Shaw tells us, to the sheer incompetence of both armies, and Raina’s father, Major Petkoff (Jonathan Tafler) and her fiancé, Sergius (Alex Bhat), come home. Things begin to unravel, while, in a sub-plot which brings to the fore the hypocrisy of the class system, the relationship between the two servants, rebellious Louka (Kemi Awoderu) and obsequious Nicola (Jonah Russell) also shows strains.

Costumes and furnishings from designer Simon Daw give the in-the-round staging a delightful period feel. Overall, the casting is impeccable, but, in particular, as the love rivals, Bhat’s over-the-top buffoonery and Waldmann’s calm and collected rationality contrast beautifully. While Shaw’s wit highlights the ridiculousness of love and war, Miller’s consistently buoyant production boosts the laughs quota by paying meticulous attention to the detail in every line and by adding deft visual touches.

The first two acts are quite short, with the first of two intervals between them. Surely this disruption could have been avoided by moving furniture around quickly with the audience present. However, there are no quibbles about the longer third act, which turns into a riotous romp and rounds off this splendid re-discovery of a classic.

Performance date: 23 November 2022

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