Writer: George Bernard Shaw
Director: Nick Reed
Reviewer: Jon Wainwright
To borrow a word from the vocabulary of Johnny Tarleton, the white-suited son of an underwear entrepreneur, this hugely enjoyable production is a ripping success. George Bernard Shaw combines his usual intellectual heft with a playfulness towards dramatic convention and the literary canon, giving the audience plenty to think about between being entertained by some good old-fashioned comic stage business. The cast of characters includes toffs and linen drapers, clerks and would-be social revolutionaries, acrobats and aviators, imperial bureaucrats and unmarried daughters. And the story? The misalliance is ostensibly between the middling sort and the aristocracy, but far more fun is Shaw’s take on the perennial misalliance of male and female, and on their motives and misadventures as each seeks union with the other.
The maternal Mrs Tarleton (played by Carrie Cohen) is the marvellously respectable centre of the household. Thoroughly middle class, she disdains what she regards as the decadent morals of her social superiors (“the things they talk about”) while relishing her own talent for scandal-mongering (“we all do that: that’s only human nature”). She is comically candid about her daughter’s intended, the pintsize Bentley “Bunny” Summerhays (played to high-pitched perfection by James Taylor Thomas): “He’s overbred, like one of those expensive little dogs. I like a bit of a mongrel myself…”
In her dowager black satin dress (no doubt already hopelessly outdated by 1909), Mrs Tarleton seems every inch the bulwark of social convention. And yet Shaw has her embody a remarkable tolerance for diversity in personal relationships: “we all have our tastes: what’s one woman’s meat is another woman’s poison.” Her daughter, Hypatia (played by Roberta Mair, dressed colourfully in the height of fashion), is making do with brains not brawn – an admirable if monumental mismatch since, in her own words: “Glorious young beast expresses exactly what I like to be.”
Mrs Tarleton’s taste in men runs to the full rib of beef (and all the trimmings) – the “superabundant vitality” of Mr John Tarleton of Tarleton’s Underwear. Tarleton is played by Clifford Hume, an actor of Falstaffian proportions whose delivery bears an uncanny resemblance to the comic genius of Les Dawson. This man-mountain made his bulky fortune by manufacturing the most delicate of garments, entirely out of keeping with his bluff, northern demeanour.
Tarleton strives to be more of a philanthropist than a philistine, endowing free libraries and forever suggesting reading material to anyone within earshot: “Read your Darwin, my boy. Read your Weismann.” (His good wife would rather he recommend the Bible.) No wonder he named his daughter after a rare female philosopher murdered by a Christian mob in 415CE for the crime of reading too many books.
It would be giving too much away to describe how several new characters either drop in for dinner or pop up out of the Turkish bath. There’s surprise as we glimpse a future that contains both feminism and flying machines, and tension as the iniquities of capitalism are eviscerated. Tarleton has to reassure his Chickabiddy that “it’s not bad language: it’s only Socialism.” The usually tolerant “Mrs T.” is not amused: “Well, I won’t have any Socialism in my house.” Shavian dissenters might not be amused either, if they see only broad brush strokes and hysterical stereotypes. For the rest of us, and for anyone prepared to be swept along (over the course of nearly three hours), there is much to enjoy in this production.
Runs until 21st June