Pros: Some very funny performances
Cons: Occasional lulls in energy
Originally produced in 1894, Arms and the Man is set in 1885 during the war for Bulgarian independence. Fortunately, you don’t need to know the historical background to the play – we’re told at the very beginning that Raina’s fiancé Sergius is a military hero, and it’s immediately obvious that the soldier who stumbles into her bedroom is neither Sergius nor even on the same side of the conflict. The intruder is Captain Bluntschli, a professional Swiss soldier fighting for the Serbs, and the first thing he does is to pull his pistol on Raina.
From this dramatic premise, Shaw fashions a play which is predominantly what we’d now call romantic comedy. Initially terrified, Raina gradually softens towards the Captain, who is plain-spoken, honest, charming and handsome. As played by Pete Ashmore, the Captain is this production’s ace in the pack. Ashmore is absolutely in command of the stage and electrifies every moment he’s on it. He flits effortlessly from convincingly sincere to hysterically funny, and is one of those actors you could happily watch all day. As Raina, Hannah Morrish provides an effective foil, showcasing some excellent comic timing.
Raina and her mother Catherine (Kathryn O’Reilly, a commanding presence if not the subtlest performance of the evening) conceal the Captain and help him escape undetected. This sets up the action of the more farcical second half of the play, in which Sergius and Raina’s father Major Petkoff return victorious from the war, and the truth about the Captain emerges. As we discover Sergius isn’t quite the hero he’s been painted, will Raina still want to marry him? Well, it’s a romcom – what do you think?
Sometimes with Shaw you need to work to mine the comedy, to find the funny in the merely witty. This production manages that whenever Ashmore’s Captain is onstage, and Walter van Dyk delivers a masterful performance as the Major, who becomes increasingly befuddled by events. Assad Zaman makes a charismatic Sergius but isn’t quite as successful at working his comic moments, and the scenes in which the secondary servant characters discuss class stunt the play’s momentum. It’s true that these passages can lend themselves to serious interpretation, but a more humorous approach would have lifted them to match the rest of the production.
The Watford Palace Theatre is a comfortable regional venue and Rebecca Brower’s designs, while not as fulsome as they might have been, decorate the impressive stage prettily enough. This is a perfectly respectable revival of the play, but its chief asset is undoubtedly Ashmore’s brilliantly accomplished performance. On his final exit, an overwhelmed Sergius can only exclaim “What a man!”, and the audience enthusiastically agreed.
Author: Bernard Shaw
Director: Brigid Larmour
Producer: Watford Palace Theatre
Box Office: 01923 225671
Booking link: http://watfordpalacetheatre.co.uk/whats-on/theatre/arms-and-the-man/#tickets
Booking until: 22 October 2016