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FringeReview UK 2021

Shaw Shorts

Orange Tree Theatre

Genre: Comedy, Drama, Mainstream Theatre, Short Plays, Theatre

Venue: Orange Tree Theatre Richmond


Low Down

Directed by Paul Miller, Set Design by Simon Daw, Lighting by Mark Doubleday with Sound Design by Elizabeth Purnell. Casting Consultant’s Vicky Richardson and Casting Co-ordinator Sarah Murray. Production Manager’s Lisa Hood, Technical Manager Stuart Burgess with Company Stage Manager Jenny Skivens, Costume Supervisor Isabella Van Braeckel. Till June 26th.


We’re welcomed back. So they’re not the first Orange Tree productions this year – the six newly-commissioned plays over two productions of Outside and Inside were performed live over a snatch of days in March and April. A terrific act of renewal in itself with defiant, durable work.

This though is the first audience-invited production, a double-bill too. OT artistic director Paul Miller returns to Shaw and much-needed (airborne, dare we say?) wit. All distancing measures, including limited seats, NHS trace and barcodes are implemented. At the time of writing too Richmond is in a Covid low-count. OT though are taking no chances. We’ve already had West End’s Walden postponed.

How He Lied to Her Husband (1904) and Overruled (1912) were designed as curtain-raisers to serious Shavian business; that’s a comparative and here we’re assailed with lightning-sketches of character, pungent and telling, being typically Shavian. Women as ever are arbiters but in this telescoped form Shaw’s ironies enjoy a cat’s cradle of clarity rendering them ideal prototypes.  Both last between 35-40 minutes.

The plot of the latter work was clearly taken up with a new twist into sentiment and mastery by J.M. Barrie in his 1917 Dear Brutus, a Peter Pan for grown-ups, last seen at the Southwark on its centenary. Shaw got there first though, in his subversive suggestion that sexual desire and choice is not immutable but fiendishly fluid – and can as easily swim back; that sexual admiration should be celebrated, and for many is harmless amusement. Jealousy is verboten. Both these fore-plays, as it were, embody all this. They’re fizzy; even the sentiment of Shaw’s serious comedies is banished.

How He Lied to Her Husband is notable for its postmodern hinge: the poet and married woman he loves are to go to, no not Lohengrin, no tickets; but Shaw’s own Candida, now ten years old. Much reference, including to the fictive husband’s boxing prowess, skitter over the next few minutes. Poet Henry Apjohn seems a little more grown-up than the mewling fop in the 1909 rarity Misalliance, seen here in 2017. In truth he’s a cut-down Eugene Marchbanks, Candida’s admirer, and Aurora – bored, worldly – is no Candida.

That comedy’s repeated as farce. Here it revolves around the loss – or theft –  of a sheaf of poems and the work’s true admirer. The banishment of (offstage) sisters-in-law too seems a memorable imperative.

Dorothea Myer-Bennett seems amongst many other things a born Shavian: her languorous voice switches to banter and back to savage aside in a warm glow. Champagne or steel, her range here as Aurora, or later Mrs Lund, sophisticates the ear.  Joe Bolland’s Henry Apjohn is required to navigate the higher bluster of Shaw’s poets which he does with a bounce of wondrous self-pity against Myer-Bennett. He avoids self-parody too.

Jordan Mifsud’s Teddy Bompas turns out every bit as knockabout a boxer – without the scruples of Candida’s husband. Mifsud can unleash a touch of menace in his furies. His outrage isn’t reserved for the obvious. In fact it’s not Aurora’s stratagems that work here, but the grace with which everyone needs to act.

Shaw over eight years further refined his dramatic ironies, to the extent of  developing those cross-over moments of crisis, when things jump to their opposite. In Overruled Hara Yannas’ Mrs Juno is being courted by Alex Bhat’s exquisitely moral Gregory Lunn who thinks he’s not courting a married woman, and horrified he is. It’s a promise he made to his mother. As long as a principle’s observed, you may do as you like. That’s the problem. Shaw again cuts through male abstractions with female pragmatism. Yannas’ Mrs Juno hints at deeper feelings, though Bhat’s Lunn mightn’t know what to do with them. Yannis lightly suggests she could plunge into something a bit deeper: a mix of serious, sensual, and decisive.

This couple draw aside and their spouses turn up with the other’s partner, each having decided to take world tours at opposite ends and meet briefly in the middle. And here we are.

Desperate to be amused, Myer-Bennett’s Mrs Lunn is being laid siege to by Mifsud’s bumptiously ardent Sibthorpe Juno. The name itself gives notice. It’s clear the Lunns are slightly more worldly-wise. Mrs Lunn can’t be bothered with love, let her alone her disdained first name; but desperately wants distraction and amusement. Myer-Bennett here shows what a fine Great Catherine she’d make in Shaw’s 1913 short – you can see her embryo in Mrs Lunn. Myer-Bennett etches boredom in stretching out a languorous arm, darts a disdainful eye when love’s broached, and generally commands the scene. When she and Yannis act together there’s a fresh whiff of chemistry, and again with Bhatt as her husband.

Juno’s the necessary butt, the one who can’t play the game: mock-fierce, appalled when he realises the nature of this flung-together quartet, it’s actions that appal him. Mifsud’s excellent as the potentially splenetic hypocrite who’d ruin everything for being encased in convention.

Most of all that subversive fluidity’s called up by the conflicted Lunn, Bhatt’s morally self-justifying lover who keeps confusing wife and new anamorata to his wife’s amusement and the latter’s faint horror. Bhatt’s open-handed Lunn seems abler to win Yannis’ slightly shocked but quickly-adapting Mrs Juno. Her husband might endure a different fate.

Directed by Paul Miller – here with an agile cast, always switching sides – and designed by Simon Daw, it’s lit by Mark Doubleday with evocative sound design by Elizabeth Purnell, including Lili Boulanger’s exquisite Nocturne and Cortege for violin and piano from 1911 and (I think) her 1914 Trois Morceaux for Piano – a feminist touch absolutely in keeping with the plays’ themes. Daw’s simple set fields a diagonally-placed white bench, much used, and in the first play a set of artificial flowers. Oh and a sadly-fated fan. The whole gives a zingy feel to a mobile cast. Lighting by Mark Doubleday is Shavian sunshine, even in a drawing room.

Special mention should go to costume supervisor Isabella Van Braeckel. Aurora and the Mrs Juno and Lunn are as their characters would wish rationally dressed in trouser-suits: Aurora in a rich ruby with a rose-patterned shawl; Mrs Juno in a black and white florid pattern, and Mrs Lunn in an answering green. How He Lied to Her Husband is definitely period – Joe Bolland’s florid poet (happily we hear not a wisp of his actual verses) sports a raspberry jacket and lighter-shaded shirt (sort of cherry yoghurt), to answer Aurora’s colours. Bompas is all non-nonsense greys with hair braided back. By contrast Overruled is altogether non-period: Mifsud’s hair is released and all else follows: sunglasses and slacks, cruise-wear. Bhat’s all blues and you realize the married couples are subtly colour-coded.

A joyous, heady and oh-so-welcome return to this intimate yet high-kicking theatre. An absolute must-see. But with limited space, tickets are selling fast.