Saturday, 23 December 2017

Theatre review: Misalliance

Paul Miller's seasonal offering is what has become his personal trademark at the Orange Tree, another lesser-known play by one of the best-loved late 19th or early 20th century playwrights. It's Bernard Shaw's turn again, with Misalliance a fairly straightforward attempt at a knockabout comedy, although one with a message that would have still ruffled a few feathers in 1909. Tarleton (Pip Donaghy) is a self-made man who made a fortune with his brand of hard-wearing underwear. He sent his children to the most expensive schools so that they wouldn't mingle with the aristocracy (they're always asking for loans they never pay back) but somehow his daughter Hypatia (Marli Siu) has still got engaged to Bentley (Rhys Isaac-Jones,) youngest and oddest son of Lord Summerhays (Simon Shepherd.)

If her family seem unconcerned at the prospect of her marrying a weird, camp man-child, it may be because nobody really thinks she'll go through with it, least of all Bentley himself, who refuses to let Hypatia meet his dashing friend Joey lest he instantly sweep her off her feet.

Joey will eventually literally fall into the family's lives regardless, but first we have an opening hour of diminishing returns as the characters' comedy of manners, Bentley clashing with his fiancée's bumptious brother Johnny (Tom Hanson,) gives way to Shaw getting tangled up in everyone's social opinions, setting his scene in an overlong and unsubtle manner. Relief falls from the sky when a plane piloted by Luke Thallon's caddish Joey crash-lands on the grounds, and Hypatia's head does indeed turn. But a bigger disruption is the plane's passenger, who'll blow away the certainties they've been espousing.

This is a generally strong cast of nine, but there's no question that despite having one of the smaller roles this is Lara Rossi's show: As Polish acrobat and daredevil Lina she explodes into the room with a no-nonsense attitude that in the course of a couple of hours gets the characters out of trouble various times; and in a place where people keep proposing to each other almost out of habit, she has an outraged response to the very suggestion she should take up such a traditional role in life. Rossi blows the roof off the theatre, to the extent that the much-too-young children who'd been brought along by their parents were wide awake and enthralled for her scenes (and her scenes alone.)

With a couple of effeminate men and a woman who chooses her own identity there's something decidedly proto-feminist to Shaw's play - even a more traditional female role is seen as saving the day when Mrs Tarleton's (Gabrielle Lloyd) maternal insticts defuse a dangerous situation. This latter subplot, with Jordan Mifsúd's disgruntled Julius breaking into the house, never really held together for me, but it does up the ante and the energy for the second act. Shaw's tendency to tell rather than show means I've never admired him to the extent he's generally held up to, and it's a tendency that's still apparent for much of this play; but Misalliance's descent into screwball comedy actually gives him a chance to be subtler with his political points, and it makes for an uneven play, but one whose high-points really work.

Misalliance by Bernard Shaw is booking until the 20th of January at the Orange Tree Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 50 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: Helen Maybanks.

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