On the Rocks

George Bernard Shaw

Pentameters Theatre, Hampstead

(2009)

Review by Robert Tanitch

Bernard Shaw’s rarely performed political comedy, which ends with riots outside Downing Street and the police liable to use machine guns, was premiered in 1933 when he was 77.

It’s at best a collector’s item; and in 1975, when it was extremely well cast by Bernard Miles at the Mermaid Theatre, it seemed topical and well worth collecting. There have been no productions in London since then.

The Prime Minister is in the grips of economic forces that are beyond his human control (sounds all too familiar!) and he is heading for a nervous breakdown. It's not however, over-work, which is driving him round the bend, but his own acute lack of mental exercise.

He spends so much of his time talking that he never has time to think. He is packed off to a clinic where he reads Karl Marx. On his return, refreshed and invigorated, he embarks on wholesale nationalization.

Shaw argues that English politics, and especially English socialism, does not bear thinking about; and since democracy is a myth, it would be better to embrace Fascism and dictatorship wholeheartedly. (Shaw’s admiration for Hitler, Mussolini, Ataturk and Stalin was well known.)

One of the major criticisms of his plays has always been that his characters just sit around and talk. But what talk! There are plays of his which indeed are ALL talk – such as Misalliance, Getting Married and In Good King Charles’s Golden Days – and they work perfectly well theatrically in the right hands.

On the Rocks, a companion piece to The Applecart, admittedly, is far more difficult and plays into the hands of his detractors. There is a surprising lack of wit. Shaw’s parodies of political rhetoric are poor and it isn’t until the second act that we suddenly get the real thing. There is a superb speech by an insulted and enraged Indian, a blistering attack on British racism, which is one of the finest things he has ever written.

Unfortunately, there is a lot of dull stuff as well, including an unnecessary coda dealing with the Prime Minister’s children, which should have been cut. Michael Friend’s interminable two-and-a-half-hour production doesn’t make things easy for an audience. Some of his actors speak very softly and all on one note, whilst others do a lot of shouting, and too many of them are miscast.