Saturday, 26 November 2022

Theatre review: Arms and the Man

Paul Miller directs his final show as Artistic Director of the Orange Tree, and it's no real surprise that it involves one of the two classic playwrights who've kept the wolves from the venue's door during his tenure. I would have personally preferred a Rattigan swansong, but Miller's gone instead for Bernard Shaw: Arms and the Man is one of Shaw's most famous titles, although I don't think I've had the opportunity to see it before, so like most of the two writers' works presented in Richmond, it's presumably fallen out of favour and been forgotten. It turns out to be a lightly farcical romantic comedy for the holiday season, and less overtly political than its title and premise might have suggested: Set in rural Bulgaria during one of the endless 19th century conflicts between the Russian and Austrian empires, the Bulgarian army (under the Russians) have just scored a major victory over the Serbians (under the Austrians.)

Raina (Rebecca Collingwood) has heard that her fiancé Sergius (Alex Bhat) led the successful cavalry charge, and her father's country house is preparing for the soldiers' return. But instead of the conquering heroes coming through the front door, a refugee climbs through her bedroom window.

Bluntschi (Alex Waldmann) is a Swiss mercenary who fought on the Serbian side, and after initially ensuring her silence with threats he appeals to her good nature enough that she chooses to protect him; especially when he shares the other perspective on the battle, which reveals Sergius not as the war hero, but as a reckless idiot who got lucky. With the help of Raina and her mother Catherine (Miranda Foster) Bluntschi escapes with his life, and ends up negotiating the peace treaty with her father Major Petkoff (Jonathan Tafler.)

So when Bluntschi visits a few weeks later, Petkoff invites him to stay, unaware that he's been at his house before. So from the opening scene's awkward encounter between a cynical soldier and a young woman whose ideas of being modern are put to the test, we move to a gentle comedy of manners, in large part involving a coat lent to Bluntschi, whose pockets contain evidence that Raina has developed feelings for him.

The Orange Tree's permanent in-the-round configuration tends to lead to creative responses to the challenge, although in some of these Victorian plays it can mean that the old-fashioned three-act structure is hard to shed - changes to Simon Daw's set mean we need two intervals, which does impact on the comic pacing, but the cast are able to keep things lively, in part because of the contrasting characters: Bhat can be relied on to give us an absurdly self-important fop, and his and Collingwood's romantic scenes are an OTT pantomime of posturing from him and simpering from her; much more genuine and equal is her relationship with Waldmann's twinkle-eyed charm.

Shaw's puncturing of grand romantic fantasies about war, contrasted with the grubby reality, are fairly low-key, perhaps because it's hard to argue against his point. More in keeping with his usual firm insistence on matters controversial at the time is his attitude to social mobility: Sergius losing Raina's affections to Bluntschi isn't a problem as he's actually in love with her maid; and Louka's (Kemi Awoderu) insistence that she won't become his mistress, but marry him and join the nobility makes her one of the most forceful characters in the play. Meanwhile Nicola (Jonah Russell,) the servant Louka is assumed to be engaged to, is also not interested in marrying her and running someone else's house together, but plans to open his own shop.

Arms and the Man is a fun rediscovery, and an entertaining couple of hours with a touch of the political bite that Shaw can still deliver. But it's neither non-stop laughs nor hard-hitting enough to be a complete knockout, so I can see why it's not remained a staple among Shaw's plays. It doesn't lack for charm though, which Miller and his cast mine every drop of.

Arms and the Man by Bernard Shaw is booking until the 14th of January at the Orange Tree Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes including two intervals.

Photo credit: Ellie Kurttz.

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