The Widowers’ Houses– at The Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond

A Play for Today written in 1892

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Orange Tree Theatre

1 Clarence St
020 8940 3633

The Widowers’ Houses is at the Orange Tree Theatre until the 31st January.

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Putting on a play that has rarely been seen since its first outing in 1892 can be a risky business. Too often the reason why a play has been kept hidden is that it really isn’t very good but, happily, that’s not the case here. Artistic Director Paul Miller is to be congratulated for tackling this one - it’s a smashing play that deserves greater recognition.

George Bernard Shaw’s first, it’s about the dreadful way poor people were treated. Shaw was a great socialist and the disgusting housing conditions that so many working class people were forced to live under made him angry. It could almost be a play for today, as the programme notes tell us, with its fabulously rich slum landlords living high on the hog at the expense of their poverty stricken tenants, aided and abetted by corruption in high places, and get-rich-quick, buy-to-let fiddles.

It’s sharply observed and hard hitting, Shaw did have a tendency to be didactic, and although it lacks the biting satire and sharp wit that characterise his later work, it’s not without humour.

Harry Trench (Alex Waldman) & Blanche Sartorius (Rebecca Collingwood)

Things start out gently enough as idealistic young doctor, Harry Trench (Alex Waldman) falls for spoilt brat Blanche Sartorius (Rebecca Collingwood) while they are holidaying in Germany. The mood changes as he learns the source of Blanche’s father’s wealth - Sartorius (Patrick Drury) is a slum landlord. A self-made, multi-millionaire, with no qualms about the horrible conditions his tenants are forced to live under, and Blanche can’t see the problem either.

Sartorius (Patrick Drury)

Harry Trench (Alex Waldman) with Cokane (Stefan Adegbola) This leaves the principled Harry with a dilemma over whether he can marry Blanche. Matters get worse for him when the source of his own family’s wealth is revealed and he has to make a choice; can he maintain his ideals and live in poverty without Blanche, or should he forget them altogether and side with Sartorius? Shaw keeps the audience guessing right up to the end.

A very strong cast includes Simon Gregor fabulous as rent-collector-turned-landlord Lickcheese who has discovered ingenious ways to make even more money out of the system; Stefan Adegbola as social climbing opportunist Cokane; Lotti Maddox as the put upon but not as silly as Blanche thinks she is maid and Corran Royle as the waiter.

It’s not without its faults – some of the characterisation could have been tighter - but they’re minor niggle. It was Shaw’s first play and as such it’s a splendid piece of new writing.

The production runs until 31 January 2015

Penny Flood

With images by Richard Hubert-Smith

January 2, 2015