Wednesday, 25 May 2016

Theatre Review: The Philanderer (Orange Tree)

Rupert Young in The Philanderer (Photo: Richard Davenport)

“This is going to be a cheerful evening…” sighs Leonard Charteris (Rupert Young), the (anti-)hero of George Bernard Shaw’s The Philanderer. Romancing his current lover Grace (Helen Bradbury), Leonard has been interrupted by Julia (Dorothea Myer-Bennett), the clingy paramour he’s very keen to be rid of. It’s (near-)turn-of-the-century London, and these three pride themselves upon being people of “advanced views”, for whom conventional romantic arrangements and stereotypical gender roles are anathema. But through their interactions, and those with Grace and Julia’s fathers, Shaw shows the complexities and contradictions of their stance, which, the play suggests, may be self-serving or self-deluding as much as liberating.
The hipster-friendly poster design for Paul Miller’s production of Shaw’s 1893 play tips us off to its approach: performed in modern-dress, this is a staging that seeks to blow the cobwebs off of Shavian drama, contrasting with the more traditional mode of Miller’s excellent production of Widowers’ Houses, seen at the OT in late 2014.
The loosely modern approach may feel counter-intuitive: The Philanderer is, after all, very much a play of its time, with its ambivalent take on the figure of the “New Woman,” its critique of antiquated divorce laws, its Wildean epigrams, and its wry assimilations of Ibsen’s influence. (In Simon Daw’s characteristically terrific design, a bust of the playwright looks down on the protagonists and the audience in the production central section, replacing the first Act’s glittering chandelier.)
But Miller, always sensitive, doesn’t overdo contemporary parallels, and starting with a kiss, the production feels vibrant and sexy for the most part. Principal among its pleasures are the attractive performances of a fine cast, with Rupert Young making Leonard a charismatic mixture of connivance and candour; Helen Bradbury bringing poise and gravitas to Grace; and Dorothea Myer-Bennett suggesting the pain beneath Julia’s very funny emotional poses.

Michael Lumsden and Mark Tandy contribute a cherishable double act as the patriarchs, and the stylish Paksie Vernon makes the most of her scenes as Julia’s sister. And Christopher Staines gets the production’s funniest moment as the doctor who’s distressed to discover that his cherished new theory has been disproved by better-funded European rivals.    

There’s a slight plunge into tedium in the final stages, partly because Miller has chosen to include both of Shaw’s third Acts, making for a patience-testing conclusion that could have used some judicious editing. It’s far from Shaw’s most perfectly constructed work, and the staging doesn’t have the total assurance of Miller’s perfectly pitched revival of French Without Tears (which is making a welcome return to the OT in July - book now!). Still, The Philanderer is highly enjoyable, offering a marriage of tradition and modernity that makes for a cheerful evening, after all. 

The Philanderer is booking until 25 June.

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