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Major Barbara

George Bernard Shaw
Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond
(2006)

Production photo

A Saturday afternoon at the Orange Tree is a theatrical experience like few others. For this performance, there was practically no need to print tickets that failed to offer a discount to senior citizens. Further, the doors opened half an hour before the non-existent curtain was to rise and, instantly, the majority of the seats were occupied.

The patient Richmond pensioners know what they are about and it was the absent youngsters who missed out on a delightful three hours, under the direction of the wonderful Sam Walters. As a bonus, the theatre even offers the best mobile phone warning in the business.

George Bernard Shaw has a fan club that is doing him proud, as he celebrates his hundred and fiftieth birthday. Michael Billington has been singing his praises, the BBC has collected many fine broadcasts of his plays in a DVD set and the Orange Tree has dedicated its winter season to him.

As is often Walters' way, he and a cast, expertly led by his daughter Octavia playing the titular Major, draw remarkable comedy from the text, at least in the first three quarters.

William Roberts' simple set makes great use of munitions boxes, symbolically used to provide all of the furniture, whether in the home of the wealthy Undershaft family, a Salvation Army dining room or the munitions factory that eventually funds them all. He also offers some spectacularly over-stated costumes, that by today's standards might even be regarded as vulgar but add to the fun.

The plot explores morality with Barbara goodness personified, in her efforts to help the poor and save souls. She has to fight not only her moralising mother and weak siblings but a newly-discovered father.

Andrew Undershaft, played convincingly by Robert Austin, is a red-faced, bald, bearded man who has dedicated his life to weaponry. However, he has his own ethical code keeping the faith of the armourer, even-handedly selling weapons to whomever, good or bad, can afford to pay for them. He also ensures that his workers live the life of Riley, thus muddying the moral waters.

The pace is tremendous and holds the attention until Shaw gets overly didactic towards the end as Andrew Undershaft forces his family to grow up. More to the point, his Greek Professor, prospective son-in-law Dolly, has to make a major moral decision that might also cost him Barbara's love.

By the end, Shaw has almost persuaded us, like so many politicians during the Cold War, that the only route to peace and happiness is a multiplicity of armaments.

The acting is universally impressive with Jacqueline King playing grim, bossy Mum, Lady Britomart, and David Antrobus in the part of Dolly, supporting Octavia Walters as the stars among the nobs.

Down the social pecking order, Sarah Manton gives a perfect performance as Little Jenny Hill, the sweetest of Salvation Army officers, especially when turning the other cheek to Mark Frost as Bill Walker, a cowardly, oversized bully.

This new production of Major Barbara might well be sold out but if you can get a ticket, you will learn not only why Shaw was popular 100 years ago when this play was first performed but also how so much of his political thought about capitalism and poverty, not to mention the influence of the armaments industry, is still relevant today.

John Thaxter reviewed this production earlier in the run

Reviewer: Philip Fisher