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Shaw Shorts (Orange Tree Theatre)

The Richmond venue reopens with a Shavian double bill

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Dorothea Myer-Bennett and Joe Bolland in Shaw Shorts
© Richard Davenport / The Other Richard

And another beloved theatrical destination roars back to life... Actually, "roar" might be a bit strong: this slight but enjoyable double-bill feels more like a languidly elegant sashay back into live performance for Richmond's endlessly classy Orange Tree, rather than a roar. With this in-the-round venue's intelligent approach to Covid safety (as well as the usual mandatory measures, there are separate entrances for different levels, no bar service, and any seats not on sale have been physically removed) and an interval-free 70 minute running time, Shaw Shorts may prove just the ticket for tentative theatregoers still nervous about returning to an auditorium but longing to cautiously dip their toes back into theatrical waters.

They're unlikely to be unduly challenged by the play itself; or rather the plays, since the evening is composed of two playlets, extended sketches really: How He Lied To Her Husband (1904) and Overruled (1912), collectively representing George Bernard Shaw at his most jocular. The preoccupation with turning marital mores on their heads, coupled with wry observations on the artificiality of social convention plus a bracingly absurdist streak, recall Wilde and Pirandello, while the script - closer in tone to jokier Shavian fare such as The Philanderer or You Never Can Tell rather than the more weighty Heartbreak House or Mrs Warren's Profession - is often dazzlingly witty, a welcome reminder of how much fun GBS can be.

It's also refreshingly off-kilter: the self-referentiality of the first piece - where a sparring adulterous couple discuss Shaw's own comedy Candida, the plot of which this riffs on - walks a fine line between being charming and tediously precious, before exploding its own frivolous artificiality with a surprising plot twist. Meanwhile, Overruled feels playfully daring in its intimation of marital partner swapping, especially considering it was written more than 100 years ago.

Paul Miller's beautifully paced production, designed by Simon Daw, takes a modern dress approach, with mixed results. The men in particular wouldn't look out of place in, say, present day Shoreditch; while it succeeds in amplifying the timelessness of the text, it occasionally jars to see these ‘hipster' types spitting convoluted Shavian sentences at each other, although actors Jordan Mifsùd, Joe Bolland and Alex Bhat manage them with considerable aplomb.

The women fare rather better: as a young wife teetering on the brink of infidelity, Hara Yannas suggests a rich inner life under the surface wit. The brilliant stand-out though is Dorothea Myer-Bennett, flawless and commanding in the first act as a hilariously self-dramatising society wife, and in the second as a bemused voice of reason in increasingly hysterical circumstances: it's a mini-masterclass in high comedy acting.

If ultimately Shaw Shorts feels like a pair of attractive curtain raisers in search of a more substantial main attraction, rather than a really satisfying evening of theatre in its own right, there is still much here to enjoy. Visiting this cosy but smart venue is always a pleasure, especially after the theatrical barrenness of the last 14 months: it just would have been nice to stick around for a little longer.

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