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Arms and the Man at the Orange Tree Theatre – review

George Bernard Shaw's piece is given a top-notch revival in Richmond

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Alex Bhat and Rebecca Collingwood
© Ellie Kurttz

Since he took up his post in 2014, Paul Miller, the Orange Tree‘s artistic director, has been staging the early plays of George Bernard Shaw nearly every Christmas. This season is his last – at the end of the month he is stepping down from his role – and he's ending on a resounding high: this production of Arms and the Man is simply an unrivalled theatrical joy.

Taking place during the 1885 Serbo-Bulgarian war, the cast and set are in full period get-up. In one of two intervals of this three-act piece, I approach a coffee table – standing close to the audience in the Orange Tree's intimate in-the-round space – and see an old-looking cigarette packet with what I can only imagine is Bulgarian writing. Designer Simon Daw has servants and masters alike lounging in traditional Bulgarian folk clothes, which are later replaced by intricate Victorian bustles and skirts for fashionable formalwear. The impressively accurate period costumes and props lend the actors' movements a sense of delicacy and care – there is a beautifully non-21st century quality to the posture of the spine in a corset and bustle, or to the neatness with which a soldier folds up a military map.

Dubbed an anti-romantic comedy, the story begins with Bluntschili, an exhausted and terrified Swiss mercenary fighting for the Serbian army (the charismatic Alex Waldmann), breaking in through the window of Raina, a young Bulgarian noblewoman (Rebecca Collingwood). He threatens her at gunpoint to shelter him from the attacking soldiers outside, while she stands in her nightgown. They may be enemies, but by candlelight, the tacit, unacknowledged romantic chemistry between the pair flourishes and builds wordlessly throughout the play. The intimate staging allows Waldmann's subtle glances to speak volumes, while Collingwood's emotional walls are raised up and knocked down with skill and panache.

After the war ends and the soldiers come home, Shaw's political satire comes to the fore in a feminist, socialist and generally anti-establishment second and third act. In true Shavian fashion, the characters' dimensions are dug into – the brave turn out to have cowardly sides, the cowardly are brave, and the lowliest servant, Louka, played with wonderful depth and defiance by Kemi Awoderu, is incredibly ambitious, while the masters of the house show their provincial lack of care for social standing and etiquette. Miranda Foster and Jonathan Tafler create loving, well-fleshed out characters for Catherine and Major Petkoff, the army general who is totally useless without his clever wife.

Miller's direction grips the audience with its humour and depth. Not a single character goes without an interesting arc and the four-sided stage is skilfully manipulated to build comedy and add to the dynamics in the interwoven web of love and secrecy. It may be a comedy, but there is light and shade in Miller's interpretation, which brings out the genius of Shaw's wit, social commentary and love of humanity. They sing out in their timelessness.

This production is not one to be missed. It's running until the 14 January, and the Orange Tree are streaming it on demand between the 17 and 20 January. With the end of Paul Miller's tenure, who knows when the next revivals of these rarely seen Shaw plays will be? Arms and the Man is a precious gem – snap it up, hold it close and treat it with the love and care it deserves.