23 January 2015

Widowers' Houses at the Orange Tree Theatre hit a topical nerve

George Bernard Shaw's Widowers' Houses (1892) is just the sort of play that the Orange Tree has built its reputation on, a lesser known play by an established historical playwright, so this was the Orange Tree playing to its strengths and it was rewarded with sold out performances.

I had booked early and had picked seat A1 (£20), which was the first seat in the front row on the left from the main entrance.

I was pleased to see the stage returned to its familiar flat mode after it had first been raised and then lowered for previous performances. I like innovation but I do not think that you need to mess around with the stage like that to achieve it.

The messing around with the stage that I did like was the use of images to reinforce the story. These were both on the floor of the stage and wrapped around the upper level like a border. In the first half of the play the stage was bank note and in the second it was part of the famous poverty map of London produced by Charles Booth in the late 1800s. The map caused a lot of interest as old maps always do.

The bank note and the map told the story of the play, it was about some people profiting greatly from the poverty of others by renting them shoddy rooms. At that time they were called Slum Landlords, now they are Buy-to-Let Investors.

Therein lies the point of putting this play on at this time. More and more people are renting because they cannot afford to buy and some landlords are exploiting this dependency, e.g. residents can be evicted just for asking for urgent repairs to be made. This is a problem that is easy to put at Thatcher's door as she enabled social housing to be sold and then sub-let when the housing had been built to protect people from avaricious landlords.

The play highlighted both the plight of the poor and the status of those that profited from the trade and it did this through a love story. A young man and his companion met a pretty young lady and her father while travelling in Europe. After wrestling with the social conventions of the time they manage to meet and fall in love.

It is only when back in London that the source of the lady's wealth was realised, something the lady herself did not know, and had not questioned, previously.

Other characters skitted around the scene to add richness to the story. The man's companion was a stickler for social rules, a debt collector revealed the steps taken to collect the rents and the lady's companion proffered advice on love and money.

At the heart of everything was the delightful Patrick Drury as the father. One moment he was the loving father and upstanding gentleman and in the next he was the steely businessman who protected his interests ruthlessly and was rigorous in the defence of his practices.

Having challenged the harsh business practices with love and morals they play ends with the money winning out, as it usually does in real life. The baddies won, again.

The current resonances made Widowers' Houses a provocative play but it did little more than that with a flimsy unsurprising plot and simple characters. What lifted it above the average was its relevance and its production, especially the acting of Patrick Drury as both hero and villain.

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