Saturday 7 December 2019

Theatre Review: Candida (Orange Tree)

Martin Hutson as Morell and Claire Lams as Candida.
(Photograph: Johan Persson)

Among the continuities that Paul Miller's tenure at the Orange Tree has preserved with Sam Walters' Artistic Directorship is the frequent presentation of George Bernard Shaw's plays. Focusing so far on the early work, Miller's smart, assured takes on Widowers' Houses and The Philanderer (I missed 2017's Misalliance) have shown how Shavian drama, which  sometimes seems sluggish in bigger auditoria, can spark to life in the Orange Tree's intimate space.

This proves the case again with Candida, Miller's fourth Shaw at the OT. Written in 1894, it's a play in which conflicting ideas and attitudes underpin a love triangle, as the playwright paints a satirical portrait of cusp-of-the-century London that contrasts faith versus social justice; honesty versus self-deception; the poet and the preacher.

The heroine is the wife of Reverend James Morell, a Christian Socialist clergyman who has dissociated himself from his father-in-law, Burgess, an East End factory owner, due to his exploitation of women workers. Morell’s love rival is 18-year-old Eugene Marchbanks, a poet of aristo background who is 15 years younger than Candida. 

Martin Hutson as Morell and Joseph Potter as Marchbanks 
(Photograph: Johan Persson)

Candida's choice between the poet’s flamboyance and vigor and the clergyman’s dedication and reliability drives the plot. There are indulgent moments but Miller and the cast keep the proceedings fleet and funny throughout. Velvet-voiced Claire Lams comes into her own as Candida, conveying precisely what Shaw specifies as the "largeness of mind and dignity of character to ennoble her cunning in the affections". Martin Hutson brings charisma and energy to Morrell and, completing the triangle, Joseph Potter throws himself into the role of Marchbanks with gusto in a distinguished professional debut.   

In support, Kwaku Mills camps amusingly as the junior cleric Alexander Mill and Sarah Middleton - operating in a very different mode to her last OT appearance in Pomona - generates some of the evenings biggest laughs as Morrell's secretary Proserpine Garnett, alongside Michael Simkins as the problematic pater. 

Placing newspaper headlines and Socialist pamphlets of the period around the set, Simon Daw’s design doesn't allow us to forget the historical context. The conclusion won't please everyone but Miller's enjoyable production offers plenty of delights. 

Booking until 31 January. Further information here.

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