George Bernard Shaw categorised The Philanderer as one of his "Plays Unpleasant", dealing as it does with adultery and divorce. However, in Paul Miller's scintillating in-the-round production for the Orange Tree, this seldom revived piece proves an extremely pleasant evening in the theatre.
Written in 1893 but deemed too racy for the censors at the time, the play was not actually performed until 1905. Interestingly, Miller has chosen to stage it here in modern dress, an approach which for the most part works, despite references to the then-recent Sudan military campaign and 'The New Woman'. Essentially, this is a comedy of manners, and indeed during the first scene we could almost be in Oscar Wilde territory with epigrammatic lines like "making scenes is an affair of sentiment: damaging property is serious"; but it has very serious points to make about the lack of life choices available to women of the period, and also how the social and moral mores were beginning to change following the strait-laced Victorian era.
The eponymous Philanderer, charismatic Leonard Charteris (all rumpled charm and biting wit shot through with sudden shafts of surprising cruelty in Rupert Young's debonair performance) finds himself torn between two very different women: cool-headed and intelligent widow Grace (a winning, elegant Helen Bradbury, looking like a young Zoe Wanamaker) and histrionic, obsessive Daddy's girl Julia (Dorothea Myer-Bennett, wonderfully funny). His attempts to divest himself of the latter in order to win over the former drives much of the plot, although much of the appeal of the play lies in the vividly drawn, somewhat eccentric characters: Michael Lumsden is in fine comic form as Julia's pompous ex-Military father, expecting to expire at any moment from a misdiagnosed liver complaint, while Paksie Vernon sparkles as Julia's far more down-to-earth, feminist younger sister, and Mark Tandy is great fun as a puffed-up windbag of a theatre critic (as if such a person would ever exist!)
Christopher Staines delivers a master class in high comedy acting as Dr Paramore, in love with the highly strung Julia while also being the physician who diagnosed her father with the liver disease that may apparently kill him. The scene where he reads a medical journal discrediting his findings ("I was not able to make experiments enough: only three dogs and a monkey!... I'll rediscover my disease; I know it exists and I'll prove it if I have to experiment on every mortal animal that's got a liver at all!") is one of the funniest on any current London stage.
The final sequence takes place four years after the rest of the play and without giving too much away, the characters have not necessarily forged the liaisons one might have expected. Myer-Bennett and Staines are particularly impressive at conveying the disillusioning effects of the passage of time. Young's cipher-like philanderer Charteris appears unchanged however, which may be part of the point Shaw is making about this rootless, amoral charmer.
Miller's production moves at a cracking pace - this being Shaw there is a lot of dialogue to get through, but the show never drags for a moment. Simon Daw's elegantly simple set makes fine use of the space. I especially liked the overhead spinning bust of Henrik Ibsen in the middle act (set in the library of a club named after the playwright, where membership is revoked if men are too "manly" or women too "womanly").
Ultimately it is perhaps surprising how refreshingly modern the piece feels, the writing of the dialogue is masterly, and this is a superb cast. All in all, well worth the trip to the end of the District Line.