Birmingham Rep
Opened 18 March, 1997

Whilst some of Bemard Shaw's plays remain disturbingly salient a century on a notable example being Widowers' Houses, currently playing at the Glasgow Citizens Misalliance is not among their number. Attempts made to dress up this co-production by Birmingham Rep and Theatr Clwyd as a Freudian dream are unconvincing.

What remains is part-farce, part-characteristic Shavian debate on class and sex roles. Indeed, the bulk of the play consists of a series of duologues, from young Johnny Tarleton's initial tussle with his sister's wimpish suitor, Bentley, through sister Hypatia's own encounters with Bentley's father, Lord Summerhays, and Joey Percival (an airman who has literally dropped in), to their father's failed attempt to woo Joey's improbably exotic companion, Lina Szczepanowska, and confrontation with an overwrought young socialist intruder. Periodically, Shaw broadens his canvas, but primarily he is concerned with one-to-one friction between individual types.

Director Caroline Eves and her cast make sterling efforts to animate the piece. Nick Waring rumbles mightily, but cannot be the Johnny whom Bentley describes as "all body and no brains". As Bentley himself, Conrad Hornby oscillates between young fogeyishness and outright infantilism. Abigail Thaw's Slavic Lina is a purring, Kohl-eyed Edwardian dominatrix, and Paul Humpoletz and Anita Carey play Mr and Mrs Tarleton as characters from a J.B. Priestley comedy: prosperous tradesmen must, it seems, come from Yorkshire. Paul Chahidi turns in a fine comic performance as impassioned Mr Gunner but is a little out of place as the sole farceur.

The principal contradiction explored by the play that men feel duty-bound to "protect" and circumscribe women whilst subconsciously yearning to be bested by them is presented in a variety of facets without being substantially developed. Lord Summerhays and Hypatia speak candidly to each other as equals but lack either the dramatic or intellectual fibre of Shaw's Caesar and Cleopatra.

Eves and her company sustain the entertainment level on David Roger's huge greenhouse set, but it is apparent that this is no more than a robust veneer upon one of Shaw's less enduring theatrical essays on society.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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