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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Widowers' Houses
Orange Tree Theatre  Winter 2014-2015

George Bernard Shaw's very first play could be a textbook lesson in how to write an issue-based drama and still make it theatrically alive and even witty. Some of its characterisations and attitudes may be a bit dated but, as Paul Miller's production makes amply clear, it can still hold and entertain us and even make us think. 

Shaw's premise, as in Mrs. Warren's Profession, which he wrote about the same time, is the ironic socialist view that if all property is theft, then there isn't much moral distance between the capitalist and the crook.

In Mrs. Warren's Profession a well-brought-up young woman learns that her gentility was bought through her mother's string of brothels, and in this play a nice young man discovers that his fiancée's rich father is a slumlord. 

To compound matters, the girl makes it clear that she has no intention of turning her back on that money and the life it has bought her. And just to muddy the moral waters even further, the lad learns that his own modest income comes from investments in those same shameful properties. 

So there are lots of opportunities for the characters to argue the issues and jockey for the moral high ground, and Shaw is already in this first play a master at making debate dramatic. 

We follow the various arguments, and perhaps are swayed back and forth, because they are presented both clearly and passionately by characters who care about these things and therefore draw us in emotionally as well as intellectually. 

They're frequently witty as well, which certainly doesn't hurt, and there is some incidental comedy around the edges of the debate to keep things from getting too heavy.

Director Paul Miller and his actors admirably capture all the play's texture and bring the debate, drama and comedy all theatrically alive, even if some elements – bits of Victorian moralising, middle-class complacency and the like – are so dated as to be almost quaint. 

Alex Waldmann quickly establishes both the young man's essential goodness and his naivete so that his moral dilemmas are both believable and sympathetic. Patrick Drury invests the older man with an authority that gives weight to even his more dubious moral defences, and Rebecca Collingwood captures all the complexities of a young woman who knows what she wants and how little she is willing to give up to get it. 

Solid support and some comic relief are provided by Stefan Adegbola as a man for whom the forms and rituals of polite society mean more than anything else and Simon Gregor as what the satirist in Shaw sees as the ultimate capitalist hero, a former lowly employee who combines cleverness and a total absence of moral compunctions to rise to riches and respectability. 

Though every Orange Tree Theatre season has its share of new and recent plays, its real strength has always been in exploring the heritage of the rarely-done drama of a century ago. It is heartening – and thoroughly entertaining – to see that tradition continuing.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Widowers' Houses - Orange Tree Theatre 2014

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