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FringeReview UK 2019


Orange Tree Theatre

Genre: Comedy, Historical, Mainstream Theatre, Theatre

Venue: Orange Tree Theatre Richmond


Low Down

Directed by Paul Miller, it’s designed by Simon Daw and lit by Mark Doubleday. Elizabeth Purnell is both Sound Designer and Composer, and Costume Supervisor’s Rebecca Carpenter with Wigs by Sally-Kate Duboux. Sam Behan is Fight Director. Till January 11th 2020.


A few years ago Chichester Festival claimed to be the premier Shaw producing house. With Paul Miller’s fourth production of an early Shaw in five years, the Orange Tree’s snatched that laurel, just as it has for Rattigan, Miller’s other torchborne classic.

Candida from 1894 seems like an affirmation Mrs Warren’s Profession from the previous year couldn’t enjoy. It’s a very different play, one where danger beckons from a fresh-faced future, not an emergent past. But here as elsewhere in early Shaw, there’s a ripple of real pain, of dangers that all Shaw’s paradox never subverts. It’s there later on too, but Miller in reviving three very early works (and one from 1909-10, Misalliance in 2017) seems intrigued with the Shaw before Charlotte, the philanderer before the celibate philosophe.

There’s a lot of Turgenev-style duetting too before the final triangular confrontation – which makes that pent-up experience all the more explosive. At first some of the exchanges between characters seem a tiny bit vehement for the space, but these voices settle into passions for good reason.

Martin Hutson’s Christian socialist Reverend James Mavor Morell is first confronted with a ‘scoundrel’. It’s Michael Simkins’ father-in-law Burgess whom Morell charges with not being an honest enough scoundrel. If he can only admit he’s shamelessly on the make, so Morell runs, they can be friends. And we – Shaw only half-hints – can be irritated.

Of course Burgess has to swallow such saws as: ‘We have no more right to consume happiness without producing it than to consume wealth without producing it.’ ‘Simkins’ rumpled Burgess delights in scoundrel-ish return saws and gets in quite a few cracks at sanctity and Morell’s virtue-signalling. And Burgess is the first to declare Morell is mad. It’s catching. By the end of the play four people are labelled bonkers as Burgess turns on his own daughter ‘Candy’ as he calls her, bringing her to a provincial earth. Comedy teeters on something other.

That’s the tone of Morell’s and Shaw’s excoriating look at honesty. It costs Morell a few white hairs before he’s done. Hutson starts Alpha-muscular, rehearsing his address to this and that anarchist group. He ends somewhere else, as a man prepared to knock a young boy down, terrified of his wife’s choice.

Hutson modulates from sweat and light socialist through to swift anger – Morell possess a real temper – to shuddering recognition. It’s Candida who brings home to him to his earlier glosses are truer than he knows. ‘It is easy—terribly easy— to shake a man’s faith in himself. To take advantage of that to break a man’s spirit is devil’s work.’

Orange Tree Shaw in-the-round is usually a delight of sparse carpets and evocative props. Here designed by Simon Daw they’re particularly minimal to allow a hurtling physicality. There’s a full bookcase in one corner, a desk with typewriter atop it with a few chairs and two others diagonally opposite, in particular a captain’s chair. And that’s it, cleanly lit by Mark Doubleday. Elizabeth Purnell is both sound designer and composer giving us a spare pointillistic score. Costume supervisor’s Rebecca Carpenter (sumptuous sage-greens and blacks as contrast) with wigs by Sally-Kate Duboux. Sam Behan’s fight director.

As Sarah Middleton’s silently adoring secretary Proserpine Garnett copes with a bumptious young curate – Kwaku Mills’ Rev. Alexander Mill, a delicious portrayal of open-faced closed-eyed complacency – we’re exposed to Claire Lams’s Candida who quite complacently tells Morell that ‘Prosser’ like every other secretary is in love with him. Middleton makes of Prosser someone youthfully aware of her (rather assumed than real) dowdiness and superior mind – if not to Candida, then to most of the men. Her light flinches at being passed over even as a woman by someone like a young poet, or Burgess and Mills, is telling and not a little painful. But she can triumph too. Middleton’s invests Prosser with poise and riposte as when everyone returns from Morell’s long-anticipated lecture: ‘I’m only a beer teetotaller, not a champagne teetotaller.’

One of Candida’s protégés is a young man she discovered destitute by the Embankment. Still he’s a runaway from Oxford and his uncle’s an earl. Unlike most wannabes though this 18-year old is the real right thing as a poet. Joseph Potter’s Eugene Marchbanks is articulate and ardent, and when he declares to Morell first he’s unerring. ‘Do you think that the things people make fools of themselves about are any less real and true than the things they behave sensibly about? They are more true: they are the only things that are true.’

It’s when he presses home his advantage that Potter making his debut here shows a Shavian-young-man pitch and petulance perfectly under control, an impressive debut. ‘You are very calm and sensible and moderate with me because you can see that I am a fool about your wife; just as no doubt that old man who was here just now is very wise over your socialism, because he sees that YOU are a fool about it.’ Potter can do hurt and resignation too, plucking nobility from adolescence. Marchbanks, Candida reminds her husband and Marchbanks himself, is always right.

That barb remains Morell’s wound till Candida, confronted with that final triangle weighs in. At first it’s a sardonic Woman Question pitch, with ‘pray, my lords and masters, what have you to offer for my choice?’ Lams brings a mix of coquettish attraction and Minerva-like pronouncement, in fact truly considering the rival claims of fresh sexual passion and the claims of marriage.

Morell here echoes Ibsen’s 1888 happy-ending The Lady From the Sea where the husband asks his wife to choose between him and an old lover returned to claim her. Here though the lover’s more generous, has deeper claims from far briefer acquaintance.

And Lams delights in Candida’s demolishing both her passing father and husband with a skittish prelude: ‘This comes of James teaching me to think for myself…. It works beautifully as long as I think the same things as he does. But now, because I have just thought something different!— look at him—just look!’

Candida‘s choice has nothing to do with convention or who claims to love her most. Her final speech is a gift Lams seizes on and the men must deal with it. It’s both a surprise and a profoundly satisfying close.

A first-rate revival; the cast is faultless though Lams Hutson and Potter making his debut are superb, scrupulously navigating their way between verbal dazzle and dark pain. You’re absorbed, virtually never distracted by wordiness. Actors avoid that archness Shaw productions can encourage. The slightly edited text convinces here far more than any production I’ve seen.