by George Bernard Shaw.
New Victoria Theatre To 29 June 2013.
Runs 2hr 30min One interval.
Review: Timothy Ramsden 23 June.
A near-full theatre midweek in June for early Shaw shows a sure success.
It must have shocked theatregoers at the 1893 premiere of George Bernard Shaw’s first play to return from an interval and discover how the first act’s English tourists could afford their Rhineland holiday.
These characters are not, generally, rich. Most affluent and assured is Sartorius. He has the best arguments, like so many of Shaw’s devils. And he works for a living, unlike Cokane, first of the dramatist’s English middle-class dullards who care only for what Society approves. Even young doctor Trench has to discover life’s realities, so unlike his university ideals.
Sartorius out-argues their objections to his income being founded on others’ poverty before implicating them as fellow-beneficiaries. Nor is this simplistically a matter of poor innocence and overweening power. The rent-collector Lickcheese (first of Shaw’s characters named with comic extravagance) goes from desperation when he’s sacked to gloating when he’s discovered a borderline-fraudulent scheme for getting rich quick.
Jesus used the widow to represent poverty: the generosity of the widow’s mite, the devouring by the scribes of “widows’ houses”. Shaw set Widowers’ Houses in a society where whole families, not just widows, were caught in poverty and debt.
And the shock at Teresa Heskins’ heartily-played revival is how modern it all feels, for all the period costume and manners. See the middle-classes overcome their reluctance at having dirty hands to side with the money-makers for some crumbs off their table; for scribes see banks, for Lickcheese look at tax-avoidance or any number of scams to divert public money to private profit.
All this atop a platform whose golden feet oppress the dirt and wretchedness below. Payday loan sharks would grind-down their teeth on the poverty here. Heskins takes the interval at a frenetic moment mid act two. The first set change has been an enjoyable example of designer Michael Holt’s ingenuity; the second knocks us flat with voices from the 1885 Royal Commission into Working Class Housing.
Among the cast William Ilkley is a commanding Sartorius, at one point dismissing Lickcheese while welcoming his holiday friends, all surrounded by the audience, and catching both moods with perfect distinction.
Cokane: Andonis James Anthony.
Blanche: Rebecca Brewer.
Trench: Mark Donald.
Sartorius: William Ilkley.
Parlourmaid: Katriona Perret.
Lickcheese: Leigh Symonds.
Porter: Adam Sutton.
Waiter: Matthew Jones.
Director: Theresa Heskins.
Designer: Michael Holt.
Lighting: Charles Balfour.
Sound: James Earls-Davis.
Vocal coach: Abi Langham.