George Bernard Shaw
Orange Tree Theatre
Orange Tree Theatre

Claire Lams as Candida Credit: Johan Persson
Martin Hutson as Rev James Mavor Morell and Claire Lams as Candida Credit: Johan Persson
Martin Hutson as Rev James Mavor Morell and Joseph Potter as Eugene Marchbanks Credit: Johan Persson
Joseph Potter as Eugene Marchbanks and Michael Simkins as Mr Burgess Credit: Johan Persson
Kwaku Mills as Rev Alexander Mill and Michael Simkins as Mr Burgess Credit: Johan Persson
Sarah Middleton as Proserpine Garnett Credit: Johan Persson

Set in the autumn of 1894, the year it was written, in St Dominic’s Parsonage, which looks out Victoria Park in East London, Shaw’s play is very much of its period but so lively it feels like a new play. That must be due partly to Paul Miller’s production and his cast. Put aside the idea of Shaw as long speeches and being serious. He’s also very funny and this play that Shaw placed with his “Plays Pleasant” is a very light-hearted look at society and relationships.

Happily married Rev James Morell is devoted to his parishioners and the causes he espouses. He’s a serious Christian Socialist, always busy with giving talks as well as well as preaching sermons (as designer Simon Daw reminds us with images of political tracts and Fabian papers enlarged on the floor and the balcony fronts).

His politics may be progressive but he thinks himself secure in a conventional view of marriage so it's a shock to find he has a rival for his Candida’s affection. He is Eugene Marchbanks, an 18-year-old aristocratic aesthete Morell found sleeping on the Embankment because he didn’t understand he could already cash a cheque in his pocket.

Now Candida has taken the immature young poet under her wing. She treats him like a child but he idolises her. Morell sees her as his wife, his support, the mother of his children; Marchbanks believes he understand her better. Which best deserves her love? Whom will she choose if she is made to?

Both men seem remarkably chauvinist by modern standards, but Candida knows how to handle them, though it is only towards the end of the play that instead of being talked about she takes control. Claire Lams gives her the good looks, the confidence, the charm and the vitality that makes these men love her then gets the chance to reveal her intelligence.

Martin Hutson is the calm, caring clergyman, not entirely unaware that women don’t flock to his sermons and lectures just to hear what he has to say. He explodes into anger exactly as those do who seem so patient and then suddenly flare up. Joseph Potter, making his professional debut as Marchbanks, makes him the emotional opposite, crumpled up in a chair when he can’t cope or flinging himself on the ground in his passion.

The three central performances are matched by Michael Simkins as Candida’s father, Mr Burgess, a hard-nosed employer exploiting his workers, a confident mixture of East End accent and respectability. Once accused by Morell of under-paying his women workers, he claims he stopped doing that: he brought in machinery and sacked them and now pays his skilled staff the union rate. He’s a likable rogue though.

Morell has a devoted secretary, Proserpine Garnett: Sarah Middleton gives her just the right kind of perkiness, calf-eyes for Morell but sharply outspoken and picking up Candida’s confidence. He has an assistant cleric too, Rev Mill: Kwaku Mills makes him all of a flutter, however much he might like to have Morell’s calm. Just see these two supposed teetotallers after a champagne dinner with Mr Burgess!

This delightful revival is Miller’s fourth Shaw in five years. They are well matched. I look forward to more.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton

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