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 The Theatreguide.London Review


Major Barbara
Orange Tree Theatre October-December 2006

One of George Bernard Shaw's most enjoyable plays is given a nearly ideal production by this always-reliable Richmond theatre. If it's not quite perfect, most of the hiccups are Shaw's, and director Sam Walters and his cast are generally successful at sailing past them.

Shaw's genius was not just in his sparkling wit (in ample evidence here), but in his ability to make ideas dramatic. Repeatedly in his plays characters pause to debate issues, but such sequences do not stop the play dead, but actually move the plot forward, since it is the ideas that drive the characters and their relationships, and they are also so well written as to be engrossing in themselves.

Major Barbara is about nothing less than the nature of morality and the saving of souls, but it is also a witty comedy and the exploration of matters that really matter to its characters, whose fates and happiness really matter to us.

The title character is the daughter of a munitions manufacturer who has devoted herself to the saving of souls through the Salvation Army. She challenges her father to visit her mission and see the good she does, and he in turn invites her to visit his factory town to see if it is as bad as she imagines.

There is a plot built around this challenge, involving Barbara's fiancÚ and the rest of her family, and so there is a forward movement of events leading toward a resolution - in short, there is a real and interesting story going on here - but the play is centred on the two visits and their effects.

After an opening act set in the family home that is pure social comedy (Imperious mother ruling the roost, long-banished father visiting and having to be re-introduced to his children), the action shifts to the East End of London, where Barbara bustles and bullies her way through the saving of souls, while we see that her converts are more attracted by the free meals than the hope of salvation. Father and fiancÚ join in an uneasy alliance to disillusion Barbara, which is achieved perhaps a bit too cruelly through the strategic employment of father's chequebook.

But the promised visit to the imagined hellhole of father's factory carries new surprises as it proves to be a model village filled with happy and healthy workers, illustrating their employer's argument that morality and salvation are luxuries that can only be achieved after sickness and want have been conquered (and, not incidentally, that happy, healthy workers make more profits for him).

Throughout, the debates - on whether earthly comfort is an obstacle to or the only way to salvation, on whether the making of cannons and bombs is the devil's work or just an efficient way of creating and spreading wealth, on whether power corrupts or enables - are not only engrossing in themselves but are the real twists and turns of the plot.

(Now, one has to admit two things. In giving the devil the best lines, Shaw sometimes goes too far, allowing the father not only to stray into megalomania but to invite Barbara and her beau to join him there. And occasionally he allows his quick wit and verbal razzle-dazzle to carry him over some rough patches so that, particularly near the end, the logic of the debate sinks into gibberish that we only put up with because it is such good gibberish and because we see the happy ending it is leading toward.)

Anyway, the play is thoroughly entertaining, and I have nothing but praise for Sam Walters' production and for his cast, most of whom appeared in the theatre's recent production of The Madras House (the development of a de facto rep company, with the opportunity to see the same actors in different guises, being one more attraction of the Orange Tree's current season).

Octavia Walters is a particularly attractive Barbara - lively, intelligent, humorous and sexier than she realises, as much her mother's daughter (the subtle bullying) as her father's (the energy, the barely-acknowledged pride in her superiority).

Robert Austin has all the father's energy and power of personality, though his control of the character's dynamic attractiveness is occasionally threatened by the man's darker side.

David Antrobus gives the fiancÚ an ironic stance that makes him a perfect gadfly to both of the others, though he might have hinted earlier at the more serious elements of the character that justify the spotlight turning toward him in the final scenes. Jacqueline King is especially delightful as the matriarch who rules her family through the power of pretending to have no power at all.

This run of Major Barbara through December 9 will be briefly interrupted as the same actors appear in a couple of programmes of Shaw one act plays, so check the theatre's website for schedules. Richmond is an easy 20 minutes from Waterloo Station, and once again the Orange Tree makes it well worth the trip.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Major Barbara - Orange Tree 2006