Laugh Out Loud Shaw
“Perhaps we only have our heroic ideas because we are so fond of reading Byron and Pushkin.”
The outgoing director at the Orange Tree Theatre, Paul Miller has given Richmond a goodbye present of a charming Bernard Shaw comedy. Arms and the Man is the sixth Shaw production he has produced in eight years. It has not been produced professionally in London for 40 years. My last contact with it was reading the play at school but I shall always remember the chocolate soldier.
I have to confess that I have been known to groan at the mention of a Shaw play but the comedies, when properly handled, are witty and delightful. Arms and the Man is set in Bulgaria initially during the Serbo-Bulgarian War which lasted for two weeks in November 1885 and illustrates Shaw’s anti-war views. The young heroine Raina Petkoff (Rebecca Collingwood) is engaged to Major Sergius Saranoff (Alex Bhat) a soldier fighting on the Bulgarian side. A photograph of him on the table in her bedroom is gazed at adoringly.
The second item on Shaw’s agenda is to show up romance as a ridiculous confection. As Raina idolizes Sergius, a soldier from the opposing army climbs up to her balcony Romeo style and into her room. The intruder is escaping pursuing soldiers and is a Swiss mercenary Captain Bluntschli (Alex Waldmann). Raina discovers that in his armament pockets, instead of spare cartridges he carries chocolates. Bluntschli also has a story about the cavalry charge led by Major Saranoff at the Battle of Slivnitsa. Raina and her mother Catherine (Miranda Foster) help Bluntschli hide from Bulgarian soldiers and escape in one of her father’s warm civilian coats.
The performance here is played as originally intended in three acts with two intervals. The pace of comedy timing is brilliant with so many opportunities to laugh out loud. Act Two switches to the family kitchen where the servants have hung the washing to dry. The war has been concluded and Sergius returns, posing with one leg on the washing airer to show us his very fine derrière. On his face is a moustache fit for any Movember man, curving at both ends and his eyes flashing as he describes his military prowess. For Alex Bhat’s physical comedy, think John Cleese at his finest.
Also returning is Pere Petkoff (Jonathan Tafler). Major Petkoff and Sergius have met a Swiss soldier who has entertained them with tales of his escape from the bedroom of a Bulgarian girl with the help of her mother. Shaw’s serving class are always important, here the manservant, another John Cleese-alike, Nicola (Jonah Russell) helps any subterfuge and the maid Louka (Kemi Awoderu) looks at her own advancement with Nicola’s help.
The return of Bruntschli allows Shaw to compare Saranoff and the Swiss and for the pragmatist Shaw the list shows comparative wealth, houses, horses, even crockery and cutlery. You might have been able to predict the ending but you wouldn’t have been able to say how many times you would have laughed. All three of Shaw’s women have important and independent roles for a play written in the 1890s.
The acting performances here are superb, Rebecca Collingwood as Raina seen first in her nightdress nervous with the intruder and later in fabulous cream frock, gaining in confidence and able to make a decision for her own happiness. There is a super contrast between Brunschli’s quiet sense and Saranoff’s stagey flourishes. The whole cast are faultless.
In this month of Arts council cuts, we remember the dramatic moment that Paul Miller started as Artistic Director at the Orange Tree to find a letter on his desk withdrawing funding. How well he has done at the Orange Tree! Good luck to Tom Littler!
From the theatre site that doesn’t do stars, Arms and the Man is a five star production! Thank you Paul Miller!
Arms and the Man
Written by George Bernard Shaw
Directed by Paul Miller
Director: Paul Miller
Designer: Simon Daw
Lighting Designer: Mark Doubleday
Sound Designer: Elizabeth Purnell
Running Time: Two hours 30 minutes with an interval
Booking to 14th January 2023
Also screening 17th and 2oth January 2023
Orange Tree Theatre
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge
at the Orange Tree
on 23rd November 2022