Too True To Be Good
Finborough Theatre September 2009
Shaw's 1932 comedy is one of his least-often revived, in part because its ostensible theme - the moral adriftness of the post-WW1 years - might (wrongly) seem dated, and in part because, like all Shaw plays, it is witty and talky in roughly equal proportions, and your ability to enjoy the former depends on your capacity for reams of the latter.
A rich young hypochondriac, being tended by her even more hypochondriac-by-proxy mother (in a delightfully dotty comic performance by Jenny Lee) is aroused from her sickbed by some burglars who decide, in mid-burgle, to invite her to join them in the theft and escape to a Grand Adventure.
It is at this point that a secondary character turns to the audience and says 'The play is now virtually over, but the characters will discuss it at length for two acts more.' And so they do.
The runaways find themselves in some vaguely African country, mingling in disguise with the British army sent to rescue the heiress from imagined native brigands.
And everybody, military and civilian, talks about things - about the conflicting pulls of our animal 'lower centres' and our rational 'upper centres,' about the limits placed on both the posh and the common by the class system, about the difficulty of returning to the Ten Commandments after the atrocities of war, about how men like to talk while women need to work, about how even unbelievers have had their faith shaken by Einstein's explosion of Newton.
And about a whole bunch of other things as well, the slim common thread running through most of them being the loss of old orders and old definitions and the daunting prospect of finding new paths with no help from the past.
And a lot of that is witty, and a lot of the incidental characters (a military officer happy to let a far more qualified private run things for him, an atheist threatening to disown his son for becoming a preacher, even a microbe complaining about how the hypochondriac mistreats him) are colourful and fun.
Olivia Lumley makes the ex-patient spunky and intelligent once she discovers it's more fun to be healthy, Emily Bowker is refreshingly direct as the burglar's hedonistic moll, and Alex Blake makes us almost believe in the robber who is a revivalist preacher - of any faith you wish - at heart.
But oh, is it talky, and oh, do Lumley and Blake in particular carry the burden of having to debate or preach at length about their characters' hobby horses of the moment.
I sat through the play, and particularly through the last half-hour, thinking of all the places director Sarah Norman might have cut the text to make it more bearable. But then I decided no, this is Shaw, and you have to take the whole package or not at all.
And that's my advice. Be prepared to take the whole package, including the longeurs, and you'll find a lot of bits along the way that are both delightful and thought-provoking.
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Review of Too True To Be Good - Finborough Theatre 2009