tue 07/02/2023

Arms and the Man, Orange Tree Theatre review - a rollicking take on Shaw's satirical classic | reviews, news & interviews

Arms and the Man, Orange Tree Theatre review - a rollicking take on Shaw's satirical classic

Arms and the Man, Orange Tree Theatre review - a rollicking take on Shaw's satirical classic

Absurdly romantic notions about love and war have never been funnier

Man up: Alex Bhat as Sergius in 'Arms and the Man' Images - Ellie Kurttz

For his final bow as artistic director of the Orange Tree, Paul Miller has decided to go out with a bang, amid much giggling and snorts of laughter. This isn’t George Bernard Shaw’s Arms and the Man as a barbed but fairly conventional comedy: Miller and his excellent actors are really gunning for it.

That's true of none more so than Alex Bhat, who gives a master class in physical comedy throughout as a buffoonish Sergius Saranoff, the Bulgarian cavalryman whose wayward horse has led him, inadvertently, to charge the Serbian invaders and rout them. In the satirical terms the play sets out, he has won a war “the wrong way”; and he is so disgruntled about the unromantic verities of combat, where success means cutting the noble gestures and staying out of danger, that he is resigning his commission. 

Now he has decided instead to pursue the romantic ideal of “higher love” to which his fiancée Raina Petkoff (Rebecca Collingwood) subscribes, rather taxing though it is. That explains why he struts and poses affectedly, tittering inanely and at one point unfeasibly doing the splits with her on his knee.Rebecca Collingwood in 'Arms and the Man'Collingwood (pictured above) delivers a turn of near-screwball physicality where body language is all. At curtain up she sits gazing dreamily at the photo of Sergius on her bedroom table – then tellingly swivels her head to the hand mirror in her left hand, so she can regard her own face with equal approval. We have her number before she has spoken a word.

Together, Bhat and Collingwood sigh and swoon their way through a whole repertoire of melodramatic posing, at one impressive moment flopping with 100% simultaneity into separate chairs. 

Into this overcooked romance staggers Bluntschli (Alex Waldmann), the cool-headed Swiss mercenary fighting for the Serbian army who shins up a drainpipe into Raina’s room for sanctuary. She should be terrified but doesn’t wilt, even when Bluntschli starts shooting down all her romantic notions about war and soldiering. Nine out of ten soldiers, he assures her, are “born fools”. He doesn’t carry ammunition in his belt, he tells her, just chocolate. 

Waldmann is spot-on casting here, giving this older pragmatist an instant likeability, a worldly man with a sardonic sense of humour (and great comic timing). Shaw is having fun with the stereotypes of the Swiss, all chocolate-eating competence and precision (Bluntschli wears an early, lumpy form of wristwatch), but even so Waldmann’s “chocolate cream soldier” is a warm, sensible soul. His obvious attraction to Raina helps us see that she is not just a giddy little madam with misplaced confidence in her family’s status: “We have a library!” Nobody here, in fact, is what they set out to be.

Jonathan Tafler and Miranda Foster in 'Arms and the Man'Stirring the plot is Louka the maid (Kemi Awoderu), a smart servant from the same stable as Mozart’s Susannah, but with more smoulder and ambition. When in her presence Sergius drops the attitudinising and transforms into your basic susceptible red-blooded male. Louka runs rings round all in the household in aid of her social advancement, not just Raina and Sergius but her status-sensitive mistress (Miranda Foster) and bluff, gullible master (Jonathan Tafler, pictured right with Foster) too; only her fiancé and fellow servant Nicola (Jonah Russell) is as adept at scheming as she is, though he carefully hides his wiles. These two flesh out another of Shaw’s usual thematic concerns: the potential social mobility of the lower classes, the female members especially.

The Orange Tree’s intimate space is ideally suited to this production, which stokes the comedy with looks and gestures you can’t miss when the actors are just a few feet away (or less: the night I went, the front row were at one point in danger of being goosed by the tip of Waldmann’s sabre). Even a balletically mismanaged handshake between Sergius and Bluntschli gets a big laugh while underlining the chasm between them.

The core of the play remains intact – its sober assessment of war’s idiocies, its feminism, its sympathy for unheroic types like Bluntschli who get things done – and is arguably enhanced by the slapstick. Physical comedy is a useful lubricant, especially when it’s carefully judged so as not to undermine characterisation. Miller gets just the right level of fun out of the text, drawing fine performances from the cast, Collingwood in particular, whose crystalline delivery and comic subtlety were also a great asset in the OT’s production of Rattigan’s When the Sun Shines. This building's directorship now passes to Tom Littler, while Miller pursues freelance directing. Bravo to him for flying the flag for indie theatre – on no ACE money – with such flair and panache.

Alex Bhat gives a masterclass in physical comedy as the buffoonish cavalryman Sergius Saranoff

rating

Editor Rating: 
4
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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