George Bernard Shaw
Eighteen years before Shaw wrote Pygmalion he penned another play centred on an interesting female character, Candida. Both productions are currently playing in London, the former at the Garrick Theatre and the latter at the Greenwich Playhouse. Pygmalion and its musical counterpart My Fair Lady may be better known, but Candida is just as interesting and offers an insight into debates surrounding the so-called "Woman Question" of the early twentieth century.
Rev. James Morrell thought he lived a happy life with nothing to worry about. Little did he know that by taking in poet Eugene Marchbanks his marriage would be put to the test. When Candida returns home, Marchbanks reveals that he is head over heels in love with the vicar's wife and that Candida deserves more from a relationship than Morrell can give her.
Director Maria Chiorando has updated the play's setting to the 1940s and Marchbanks is slightly older than the usual 18. As a 25 year old he is well and truly a grown man, which adds quite a different dimension to the play. No longer a teenager, Marchbanks appears awkward and one almost feels sorry for him as a mid-twenties and socially inept young man.
Although many of the themes are still relevant to the play's new setting, one can't help but wonder when in the 1940s the action is playing. If the beginning of the decade - then why isn't Marchbanks at war? Even as a conscientious objector, living in the capital meant a fair hearing was hard to come by. Perhaps he was excused due to his aristocratic roots or, more likely, that he would be a hindrance rather than a help on the battle field? If, however, the latter 40s is the setting, Candida is bereft of any evidence of the war or that the characters have been affected by it. Post-war Britain is a perfectly plausible setting and indeed set at this time an array of new reasons emerge as to why Marchbanks acts as he does and why his rival Morrell worries so much about losing Candida to a younger man. If these could be teased out then the production would be firmly rooted in its time period and much stronger in terms of overall concept.
Peter Rae does his best to capture the emotional poet foolishly in love with Candida. His Marchbanks jumps at every noise and movement and is the 1940s equivalent of an emo today. However, apart from simply reacting to provocation, Rae needs to develop some nervous ticks to truly depict the continuous nervousness of this somewhat Peter Pan character.
As the apple of Marchbanks' eye, Helen Bang makes a strong Candida, although sometimes appears slightly too patronising to the men she supposedly loves. In fact there is no real chemistry between her and Rae as Marchbanks and so their relationship appears one of need - she wants to mother him and he needs a mother. Candida's kindness is perceived as romantic advance by a confused and naive Marchbanks and in this production it is difficult to accept that there may be something more than this platonic relationship, which leaves the final ultimatum lacking in dramatic tension.
Candida's husband is deftly played by Keith Hill. A most talented actor, he truly embodies Morrell. Each line is delivered with thought and each move executed with a clear motivation and intention. He captures the reverend's passion, frustration and despair and makes Shaw's character truly understandable and believable.
Strong supporting performances come too from Donal Cox as a Delboy Trotter come Thunderbird's Parker inspired Burgess. A gifted comic actor, Cox's barmy old businessman Burgess delights the audience with his gruff voice and over-exaggerated gestures in response to the somewhat madcap events surrounding him.
Provence Maydew's typist Miss Proserpine Garnett is equally as comic and none more so after champagne courtesy of Mr. Burgess as he tries to impress a possible future client. Shaw described his character as "pert and quick of speech, and not very civil in her manner, but sensitive and affectionate" and this is exactly how Maydew plays the role.
As keen but clumsy Rev. Alexander 'Lexy' Mill, James Billinton makes his part memorable, but needs to tone down his performance slightly and remember that the intimate surroundings of the Greenwich Playhouse do not require such intense vocal projection.
Although some of the characterisation requires a little polishing, and the play could be more firmly rooted in its time period, director Chiorando has done a sterling job with the play's blocking. Well constructed stage pictures accompany each scene and keep the audience on all three sides engaged with the performance regardless of where seated. The acting space of the Greenwich Playhouse is used to its full potential which results in a very full and fluid performance that never drags or feels stilted.
CandyKing have produced yet another classic brimming with vitality and verve. Candida may not be seen that often on the British stage, but CandyKing's latest production proves that it deserves something of a renaissance.
Playing until 26th June 2011
Reviewer: Simon Sladen