Major Barbara at the Piccadilly Theatre
The best kind of theatre is timeless. Not for the costumes or the staging but for the continued relevance of the issues explored. However, the timeliness of this latest Shaw revival, 90 years after its first staging, is eerie - could director Peter Hall have had his ear to a Whitehall door when he decided to add Major Barbara to his repertory? Certainly, the opening's coinciding with the current arms for Sierra Leone political crisis could not have been planned better.
Major Barbara is a morality play in the heavyweight class. “Nothing can bridge a moral disagreement,” says a character in the first scene, but Shaw carries on for another two and a half hours trying to bridge several. He takes on organised religion, missionary zeal, the idle rich, the worship of money, the crime of poverty, ageism, slimey politicians, the benefits culture and, of course, arms dealing. Phew!
When millionaire arms dealer Andrew Undershaft (Peter Bowles) becomes re-acquainted with his estranged wife and three grown children, he discovers a real affection for daughter Barbara (Jemma Redgrave). But she, as a hard-working major in the Salvation Army, worships God whereas he worships money. Rather than let this disagreement spoil the fun, they set about trying to convert one another to their opposing religions.
Barbara embarks on her task with confidence, but soon loses her footing when Undershaft buys off the Army with a £5,000 cheque. The donation will save Barbara's East End mission, but can anything good come of money gained from death and destruction? Not in her version of morality.
Though the characters are Edwardian, the cast brings a considerably modern flavour to them. David Yelland steals more than one scene as Barbara's fiancé Adolphus. He provides several of the play's comic highlights - particularly when he wields his drum - and, as the go-between for father and daughter, he captures most tellingly the internal struggles between moral, material and romantic desires.
Bowles and Redgrave are both solid in their roles. Anna Carteret as matriarch Lady Britomart Undershaft and John Elmes as Charles Lomax, suitor to another daughter, provide more comic punctuation in Wilde-like stereotypes of upper-class twits. And they re offset starkly by the East End riff-raff at the mission who provide a grittier perspective of London life.
The moral wrangling becomes tiresome by the final stretch of Act III, and it seems to take its toll on the cast - on the night, there were far too many line fumbles for a cast of such calibre. An admirable revival, but this Shaw could benefit from a bit more rehearsal and a bit less rhetoric.