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A CurtainUp London Review
by Neil Dowden
The play focuses on the eccentric Undershaft family. Lady Britomart (Clare Higgins) asks her estranged husband Andrew (Simon Russell Beale) to come to the family home in Belgravia to discuss (and finance) the futures of their three children. Although due to a quirk of tradition, Undershaft, a millionaire armaments manufacturer, will only pass on his huge international business to a foundling, he realizes his strong-willed daughter Barbara (Hayley Atwell) has the right temperament for the job.
The trouble is, as a "Major" in the Salvation Army, Barbara is trying to save the souls of the poor, while she is engaged to an impoverished professor of Greek, Adolphus ("Dolly") Cusins (Paul Ready). Father and daughter strike a deal that he will visit the shelter she runs in West Ham if she will come and see his munitions factory in Perivale. But how can Undershaft persuade his independent-minded daughter to accept the profiting from war she regards as "devil's work", and still find a foundling successor?
Tom Pye's elegant design of Lady Britomart's luxurious home is contrasted with the basic nature of the East End shelter, though the Undershaft family's comfort and the charity dispersed by the Salvation Army (as becomes clear) are both dependent on the money Undershaft makes from selling arms. Moreover, as a self-made man himself, for whom "poverty is the worst of all crimes", Undershaft has built an enlightened factory town for his employees.
In the central thematic conflict between the idealism and pragmatism embodied by Barbara and her father, it seems that (unwittingly?) most of Shaw's creative energy has gone into the charismatic form of the Machiavellian capitalist, who comes to dominate the play. Upper-class society may look down on his "trade", and "do-gooders" may loathe his amoral approach to making money, but thriving on war as he does, Undershaft — for whom the greatest evil is poverty — nevertheless provides employment for his munitions workers and security for his country.
In a forcefully understated performance, Russell Beale gives Undershaft a quiet but unmistakable authority while making him disturbingly likeable so that his insidious arguments are difficult to resist. Atwell is at her best when showing Barbara's strong will in pursuing her mission to convert both the deserving and undeserving poor to God's cause, but does not quite capture her disillusionment when her superiors "sell out". Higgins is amusingly domineering as Lady Britomart, vainly trying to command her children's loyalty against the lure of their father. And Ready suggests an inner steel within Adophus's apparently unworldly academic detachment.
There have already been a few ominously rumbling excerpts of martial music in the show, but in the final act Hytner makes more explicit the horrors of war, as dozens of shells descend to the stage to form a menacing forest of destruction, while dummy soldier corpses lie in the foreground — a potent reminder that the First World War was less than a decade away.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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