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A CurtainUp London Review
Of course the space at the Orange Tree is intimate with just a few rows surrounding the stage downstairs and a single row gallery upstairs, both on all four sides. Paul Miller knows how to direct in the round, so no-one speaking has their back to us for any length of time. Laura Hopkins' Edwardian drawing room stage and costumes are perfect for this 1909 drama set before the ravages of the First World War. The year is important too for women as the Suffrage Movement is making itself felt and this play is all about the lot of women.
So let me explore the women characters first. There is the pretentiously named Hypatia, (Marli Siu) the only and unmarried daughter of a rich, Northern industrialist who has made his fortune in the manufacture of men's underwear. Hypatia has agreed to be married to the effete youngest son of an English aristocrat. The English aristocracy need the money for the upkeep of their stately homes. Hypatia's mother Mrs Tarleton (Gabrielle Lloyd) is pleasant enough and homely but aware how it is her husband's money which has elevated her social acquaintances.
The ground breaking female in this play makes her greenhouse smashing landing with us being completely unaware that the compulsory co-pilot/passenger provided by the flying club is a woman. Lina with the unpronounceable surname Szczepanoweska (Lara Rossi) is magnificent, a twentieth century Valkyrie, a woman of the stuff of legends whose vision and sexual attraction will affect everyone staying at the Tarleton's house.
Of the men: we first meet the prosaic Johnny Tarleton (a splendidly stuffy Tom Hanson) who keeps the business running while his father Mr Tarleton (Pip Donaghy) indulges philanthropy, funding free libraries, and cultivates ideas. That is when Mr Tarleton Senior is not womanising. The handsome and fastidious Lord Summerhays (Simon Shepherd) is retired from the Indian Civil Service where he governed one of the provinces of the Empire and once proposed to Hypatia. Now she is engaged to his son Bentley Summerhays (Rhys Isaac-Jones) known as Bunny and played with completely over the top gay abandon to the detriment, I felt, of the play. This parodic cry baby of the family will roll around on the floor in tears if anything upsets him, a tactic which gets him tons of female attention while completely exasperating his father, who says, "I know of only one person who can make me want to smash china – and that is my son Bentley!"
The two men who arrive unexpectedly drive the plot. Joey Percival (Luke Thallon) will crash the plane and renew his romantic acquaintance with Hypatia. The Man (Jordan Mifsud) will arrive uninvited and conceal himself in the newly delivered Turkish Bath, a strange wooden structure, before uncovering a family secret and accusing one of the Tarleton family. It is in the intervention of this visitor that we learn about some of Shaw's political ideas but we also see a character we previously dismissed as rather uninteresting show great compassion. The Man works as a clerk but his ideas have come from books borrowed from Mr Tarleton's free libraries.
I admired almost all of the acting performances for their splendid timing and clarity of delivery, even those with smaller parts perfectly imbued with their character. Pip Donaghy's Mr Tarleton was so naturally convincing. Lara Rossi's Polish acrobatic superwoman clad in flying gear steals the show as she finds reasons to turn down every male in sight's proposal. In her parting scene playing on her Valkyrie nature, Miss Szczepanoweska will carry off Bentley, not dead nor a hero, but she will promise to make a man of him.
Maybe other artistic directors will peruse Shaw's more than 60 plays to see if more gems can be discovered adding a lightness of direction for those of us who cannot get to the Shaw Festival in Ontario, Canada. Meanwhile The Orange Tree excels under Paul Miller with its lively repertoire of both rediscovered and new plays.
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by Bernard Shaw
Directed by Paul Miller
Starring: Tom Hanson, Rhys Isaac-Jones, Marli Siu, Gabrielle Lloyd, Simon Shepherd, Pip Donaghy, Luke Thallon, Lara Rossi, Jordan Mifsud
Design: Laura Hopkins
Sound Design and Composer: Isobel Waller-Bridge
Lighting Design: David Plater
Running time: Two hours 45 minutes with an interval
Box Office: 020 8940 3633
Booking to 20th January 2018
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 11th December 2017 performance at the Orange Tree Theatre, 1 Clarence Street, Richmond TW9 2SA (Rail/Tube: Richmond)
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