What a delight to get back into the Orange Tree Theatre! This tiny venue in Richmond is normally warm and intimate, so I was cautious that social distancing would leave it feeling empty. It was nothing of the sort. In fact, the redistribution of seats actually meant that the audience merged into the edge of the playing area, making it all feel very organic and engaging.
Artistic Director Paul Miller’s choice of these two Bernard Shaw short plays to open the new season is a clever one on a number of levels. The casting brings back excellent actors who will appeal to OT audiences familiar with them from recent years, whilst the funny and fast-paced comedies of manners slide us quickly back in to our old play-watching practices, offering easy laughter and clever wit. The auditorium provides additional continuity with the past, the seat cushions decorated with quotes from plays in recent seasons. I found this a lot of fun on the way in! Mine said “What’s happened to my grandmother’s other egg?” from While the Sun Shines. Intriguing…
In the first short, How He Lied to Her Husband, an impetuous youth, Henry (Joe Bolland), inappropriately woos an older, married woman, Aurora (Dorothea Myer-Bennett) who enjoys his attentions but is not really serious about him. His love poems unfortunately get into the hands of her husband, Teddy (Jordan Mifsúd), and the ensuing comical farce supports a hilarious discussion of what constitutes ‘proper’ social behaviour. This reaches extremes of hyperbole, with Henry in particular soulfully exaggerating the ideal purity of his love, yet being willing to brutally beat the living daylights out of Teddy. Bolland and Myer-Bennett have a charming, dynamic relationship which is a joy to watch.
Overruled brings together two married couples who have separately fallen for each other’s spouses, but are undecided if they should split up or stay together. There is some fabulous physical acting from Alex Bhat here, playing Gregory, beautifully stretching the absurdity of his character without making him overly clownish. This is perfectly counterbalanced by the measured poise of Myer-Bennett, now fabulous as the pragmatic Seraphita. The simple staging allows the characters to really fill the space and the whole cast are energetic and sparkling. Once again key themes arise regarding what people are actually like in reality, rather than how they behave, and what is perceived to be morally proper and acceptable.
So why these century-old plays now? For sure, they are a fun way to cautiously reintroduce us to theatregoing, but additionally they clearly link us directly to current thinking. The costume choices, sometimes suggestive of days gone by, at other times clearly contemporary, blur the past with the present. The comic confusion strangely creates a space to allow us to admit timeless truths about our humanity. Significantly, as we undertake post-pandemic reflection, it is the types of conversation enacted here which chime with the topics we’ve been discussing over the past year; about the realities which have been exposed beneath our superficial perceptions of our society. Conversations about the truths of food poverty, racial discrimination, immigration have shifted our thinking on what is happening in our world. Today, just as Shaw seems to suggest in these plays, there is a lesson that in order to address difficult issues we first need to be truthful about ourselves as individuals.
Written by: Bernard Shaw
Directed by: Paul Miller
Designed by: Simon Daw
Lighting Design by: Mark Doubleday
Music Composed by: Elizabeth Purnell
Shaw Shorts is playing at The Orange Tree Theatre until 26 June. There will also be livestreamed performances on 3 and 4 June. Further information and booking can be found via the below link.