Widowers’ Houses merits an update, says JOHN GREEN
Orange Tree Theatre Richmond-upon-Thames
GEORGE BERNARD SHAW’S debut play Widowers’ Houses, first performed in 1892, was part of what became a series of moral-dilemma dramas in which he attempted to shake Victorian theatre out of its comfortable drawing rooms and give it an Ibsenian kick.
It focuses on a self-made man, widower Sartorious (Patrick Drury) and his young daughter Blanche (Rebecca Collingwood), who meet two young men on holiday in Germany. One of them, young medical doctor Harry (Alex Waldmann), falls in love with Blanche and they plan to marry.
But the big stumbling block turns out to be that the father’s riches come from his ownership of slum properties in London and he’s screwing his poor tenants for every penny. It is dirty money and not at all to Harry’s taste, as he actually treats some of those tenants.
Sartorious exposes his hypocrisy and demonstrates that Harry’s financial investments are actually tied up in his slum properties.
Just because you don’t know where your money is invested doesn’t mean you aren’t collaborating in exploiting the poor.
Today housing is treated even more as real estate and a means of speculation but it is no longer individuals like Sartorious but big pension funds and equity companies doing the dirty work. The issue Shaw raises is as valid as ever, even if we no longer have such terrible Victorian slums.
Yet, as usual, he uses his characters more as vehicles for his ideas than developing them in their own right.
And, apart from the central concept of wealth being accrued by exploiting the poor and that anyone who lives off investments is a collaborator in what should be deemed criminal activity, ideas are thin on the ground.
As always at the Orange Tree the acting is first rate, with a tight production from the theatre’s new artistic director Paul Miller. Virtually every character is impeccably performed, particularly the tragi-comic rent collector Lickcheese (Simon Gregor).
My only quibble is that Waldmann seems totally miscast as Harry — he’s more the clueless schoolboy than the opinionated public-school educated young “gentleman” that Shaw intends him to be. His friend Cokane (Stefan Adegbola) is much more the part.
Shavian wit, even in this early play, is much apparent but can’t quite lift it into something more than just a clever little idea.
Why aren’t there more contemporary plays about housing?
This one betrays the age of its construction.
Runs until January 31, box office: orangetreetheatre.co.uk