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Widowers’ Houses, Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond-upon-Thames, UK — review
From the Financial Times of Mon, 22 Dec 2014 17:46:17 GMT
Alex Waldmann and Rebecca Collingwood in ‘Widowers’ Houses’©Richard Hubert Smith

Alex Waldmann and Rebecca Collingwood in ‘Widowers’ Houses’

What a clever piece of programming. After a couple of challenging new plays, Paul Miller rounds off his autumn season as new artistic director here with what looks like a good old period piece. But Shaw’s acid early comedy about slum landlords, dirty money and social responsibility proves anything but dusty. And it still resonates: extortionate rents, shoddy properties and scandalous conditions are still with us, 130 years after Shaw began work on his play.

Tough content then, but Shaw goes about his business in brisk and breezy fashion, which Miller’s crisp production emphasises. He opens with his protagonist, the young and idealistic Doctor Harry Trench, holidaying on the Rhine with his perfectly snobbish friend, Cokane (played with wonderful, quivering hauteur by Stefan Adegbola). There’s plenty of entertainment at their expense, as Alex Waldmann’s touchingly impulsive Trench blithely flouts convention to the despair of Cokane — a situation that becomes only more acute once wealthy businessman Sartorius arrives on the scene together with his pretty daughter Blanche, for whom Harry makes an indiscreet beeline. In Miller’s production, Shaw’s withering satire of social snobbery is nicely offset by Waldmann’s gauche but genuine Trench.

But when the action shifts to London, the mood darkens. Trench is appalled to discover that Sartorius, now his prospective father-in-law, is a slum landlord and that his wealth derives from callous exploitation. And because most of us have sided with the likeable Trench by now, Shaw then twists the knife. Trench tries to persuade Blanche to turn her back on her father’s dowry and live, in reduced circumstances, on his income alone — only to discover that his own money is deeply tainted too. Shaw makes plain that it is not a few bad apples that are the problem, but a whole rotten system.

It’s clearly a first play: characters become mouthpieces and there is some blunt dramatic engineering to get key points across. But Miller’s sprightly production meets and shrewdly frames Shaw’s mix of polemic and playwriting, with the period-clad characters interacting beneath a Victorian map of London, colour-coded according to wealth and class (sharp design from Simon Daw). There are enjoyable performances from Patrick Drury as the reptilian Sartorius, and Rebecca Collingwood as the stubbornly self-centred Blanche. Nice to see a seasonal spur to social conscience that isn’t from Dickens.

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