Widowers' Houses

George Bernard Shaw
Orange Tree, Richmond

Rebecca Collingwood and Patrick Drury Credit: Richard Hubert-Smith
Alex Waldmann and Rebecca Collingwood Credit: Richard Hubert-Smith
Alex Waldmann and Stefan Adegbola Credit: Richard Hubert-Smith

Widowers' Houses, written in 1892 when the playwright was in his mid-30s, may not see George Bernard Shaw at his very best but is still a good example of what was to come during a long and fruitful career.

Thanks to the imagination of designer Simon Daw, the opening act takes place on a symbolic £20 note in a German hotel frequented by genteel Englishmen.

There, a multiple arranged coincidence throws together Alex Waldmann’s Dr Henry Trench and Rebecca Collingwood playing proud, tempestuous Blanche Sartorius.

A classic marriage bringing together the Bertie Wooster School of dim aristocracy on the male side with wealth and brains on the female is brokered in minutes.

By then, the audience has already been introduced to a comic mélange of characters that also includes Patrick Drury playing Blanche's father, a stern, serious self-made businessman whose trade is never quite reveals and Stefan Adegbola deliciously portraying the pompous epitome of penurious respectability, Cokane.

What feels like a lightweight Victorian romcom changes tone and becomes a forerunner to Major Barbara with the arrival of Simon Gregor giving a nice cameo as Sartorius's Dickensian clerk, Lickcheese, and Alfred Doolittle in the making.

Very quickly we discover that the businessman is actually "the worst slum landlord in London" but rich as Croesus and able to provide ethical justifications for enriching himself at the expense of his needy Holborn tenants.

When Henry discovers his putative father-in-law's secret, the wedding plans go awry as his moral hackles rise.

The final act, after the interval in the 2¼ hours, is played out on a London poverty map of the era. It sees a further change in fortunes and power, leading to an ending that was inevitable almost from the start.

Paul Miller has put together a perfect cast for this enjoyable revival and, with respect to her fellows, it is necessary to heap additional praise on Rebecca Collingwood, who on her professional stage debut looks completely at home and set for a glittering future.

Widowers' Houses sometimes looks more like a light comedy than a Shavian debate about the woes of society but the behaviour of the individuals on show when money is pitted against morals is a good indicator of the obsessions that would become this playwright’s stock in trade.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher