Orange Tree Theatre Winter 2017-2018
What a wily old curmudgeon George Bernard Shaw was!
In his 1910 comedy Misalliance he lets us know that he is against a whole bunch of things and for a few. And of course, being Shaw, he does so with great eloquence, wit and reasoned argument, so we are intellectually stimulated and held by what he has his characters say.
But even more, with his unique ability to make the exchange of ideas theatrical and dramatic, he makes us care about these people and about the way they care about what they're debating – what the characters believe enough to argue about takes us inside them, making them more human and sympathetic, and not just mouthpieces for the playwright.
And Shaw makes this all so engrossing and entertaining that we almost don't notice that nothing actually happens through much of Misalliance.
People stand around and talk, so much so that one comically frustrated character keeps complaining about it – like a confident magician, Shaw repeatedly calls our attention to the hand in which he is about to do the impossible.
Misalliance looks at two families, one led by a prosperous self-made businessman and the other by a Lord back from helping to rule India.
The nobleman's son and the merchant's daughter are engaged, and rarely can a couple have ever been more mismatched – she's a feisty ambitious New Woman, and he's an effete whining mama's baby.
The paradox that this marriage seems so ideal in theory – money on one side, title on the other – and so obviously wrong in reality gets everybody thinking.
They think – and talk – about the purpose of marriage, the role of women, the odd relationship of parents and grown children, the cold indifference of the young to the feelings of the older, the tendency of ageing gentlemen to become dirty old men, the emotional and imaginative limits built into the British character, what's good and bad about middle-class morality, and a random collection of other passing topics.
Misalliance sometimes feels like the playwright's stream-of-consciousness, jumping sideways from one idea to another, but all so engagingly that we hardly notice how little of a centre there is.
Shaw evidently did notice it because, more than halfway through the evening, he finally gets around to finding a plot, even if he has to bring in three entirely new and unrelated characters to do it. Two literally drop in, as their light airplane crashes in the garden, and the third breaks in with murderous intent.
You can almost feel the other characters sighing 'At last! Something is happening!' and enough does happen to rearrange things and make at least some of them happier than they were at the start.
The excellent large cast is led by Pip Donaghy as the self-taught and eagerly philosophical merchant and Marli Su as the putative bride who wants something else but doesn't know what.
Gabrielle Lloyd slyly steals all her scenes as a wife and mother living wholly within bourgeois conventionality and yet somehow always able to get her way, and Lara Rossi more flamboyantly steals hers as a Polish acrobat (Don't ask).
Paul Miller's direction could use more energy and faster pacing, to paper over the script's constant shifts in subject and tone – too often you can feel the page being turned and the new chapter beginning.
Misalliance is fun throughout – did I mention that there are a lot of laughs? – and so skilfully manipulative that you will hardly notice that you are being caught up in a story that is barely there.
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Review - Misalliance - Orange Tree Theatre 2017