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 The Theatreguide.London Review


Major Barbara
Olivier Theatre Spring-Summer 2008

George Bernard Shaw's wit is the strongest element in this National Theatre revival that never really catches fire dramatically.

A lot of lines generate legitimate laughs, and some - you'll spot them - seem remarkably relevant today. But wit and jokes are the icing on the cake, and you may find less to savour in the cake.

This is the one about the Salvation Army lassie whose father is an obscenely rich arms manufacturer. She invites him to watch her save souls, he invites her to see his factory town, and Shaw makes sure that the father wins with his gospel of eliminating poverty and want first and only then worrying about souls.

The play starts as drawing room comedy, shifts into realism and then becomes open debate, and all three modes can work better than they do this time. A central failing lies in the two chief debaters.

Hayley Atwell doesn't have the energy and personality a successful Barbara must show. She doesn't dominate the stage when she's on it, even when bossing people around, and is in constant danger of fading into the background.

Simon Russell Beale, on the other hand, has evidently chosen (or been directed) to repress his personality as Undershaft. He makes the man more of an instinctive philosopher than Shaw suggests, repeatedly taking long pauses before speaking, as if choosing his words carefully, and too rarely investing the man with the fire of one convinced beyond any wavering that he is right.

So neither as dramatic personalities nor as fighters do either of them hold our attention or sympathy as fully as they should.

Because there is more to the play than philosophy. Barbara's heart must be broken when the Army proves less pure than she thought it, and put back together when she finds a new mission in her father's world. Undershaft must be driven by a father's love for his daughter ('the most dangerous of infatuations,' as the play points out) as well as by personal disdain for the hypocrisies of ordinary people.

We have to care about them as well as be interested in what they stand for, and neither actor gives us very much to work with.

Paul Ready, as Barbara's beau Adolphus, who a plot twist will turn into her father's natural successor. gives us a little more to relate to, just by playing the ironic sense of humour written into the character. And it is Clare Higgins who actually creates the most rounded and sympathetic dramatic character as Barbara's mother, too often played as a one-dimensional dowager harridan, but here given affecting moments of softness, self-awareness and growth.

Ultimately Undershaft's (and, therefore, Shaw's) argument comes down to two points - that poverty is the greatest evil and any business or institution that fights it is doing what Barbara would call God's work, and that making guns and bombs is a morality-free occupation with nothing to apologise for. And one measure of a production's success is whether you feel that Barbara and Adolphus are selling out by coming over to Undershaft's side.

I can just say that I have rarely felt that so disappointedly as I did here.

Blame for weak or misguided performances must be shared with director Nicholas Hytner, who also seems to have decided that the pro-armaments debate and not the anti-poverty one was central to the play, but not to have been too sure which side he's on.

A particularly ugly set design by Tom Pye turns the Salvation Army shelter into an empty aircraft hangar and deprives us of any glimpse of the white and prosperous city described in the last act, rather filling the stage with ominous-looking warheads.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Major Barbara - National 2008