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The Theatreguide.London Review

The Philanderer
Orange Tree Theatre  Spring 2016

This suburban theatre has long had a special affinity for late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century plays. But in this case (as too often recently) your entertainment will come from the play itself and not from the lacklustre production. 

George Bernard Shaw's social comedy is made up, as you might expect, of equal portions of challenging ideas, serious debate and sparkling wit. 

His subject here is the generation gap at the century's turn, and the challenge to Victorian assumptions about social structure and gender roles by the New Man and, most especially, the New Woman. 

As one older character sums things up in shock and despair, 'The women smoke and earn their own living!' 

It is typical of Shaw that while championing the New Order in theory, he is not blind to how ineffectual and even ridiculous it can be in practice. We meet and are invited to admire three Bright Young Things, only to have the playwright immediately skewer them with his witty insight. 

Leonard (Rupert Young) debates eloquently but essentially just uses the New Morality of equality between the sexes and liberation from Victorian restraints as a cover for his love-them-and-leave-them philandering, while Julia (Dorothe Myer-Bennett) talks modern but is as much a prisoner of fantasy romance and masochistic passion as any Bronte heroine. 

Only Helen Bradbury's Grace can actually live by the new standards she espouses, but that is because she is cold and emotionless to begin with. 

Meanwhile, the older generation and adherents to the old values, however much mocked by the playwright, are also shown to be more honestly who they present themselves as, and worthy of some respect. 

Stripped of all the moral debate, this is a simple rom-com of a guy running away from one woman while chasing another (and it takes little insight to guess which he'll end up with), and it works quite nicely on that level, Shaw's wit and patented ability to make theoretical discussions theatrically alive adding to, rather than getting in the way of the fun. 

What does get in the way of the fun is director Paul Miller's inability to find a constant and controlling style for the production. 

Should it be played as high artifice like Wilde or serious drama like Ibsen? Should they punch up that joke or bury it? Just what balance between the admirable and the ridiculous should there be in each character? 

It was surely a mistake to costume everyone in casual modern dress, seriously weakening the basic contrast between the Old and the New that period costume would have made instantly clear. 

Meanwhile, the convolutions of Shaw's plot require several characters to radically change (or seem to radically change) from one scene to the next, and without a unifying tone or style the actors have trouble navigating those abrupt switches. 

But the problem goes deeper. Without a clear and consistent governing style and tone, you far too often sense the hard-working actors floundering, even in the simplest scenes, as they try to guess how to carry themselves or read a line. 

The result is that they all seem to be working in a vacuum, not really connecting with or inhabiting the same reality as each other. 

There is a good play here, and just about enough comes through to make for an entertaining evening. But it has to fight its way through a production that stands in its way rather than helping.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -  The Philanderer - Orange Tree Theatre 2016


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