Words. Words, words, words. George Bernard Shaw's Misalliance is full of 'em. And, after two-and-three-quarter hours in Paul Miller's spry Orange Tree revival, they do get a bit wearing. Shaw – the Tony Kushner of turn-of-the-century Britain – is relentless in his brutal examination of Edwardian society. Exhaustingly so.
That his 1909 play should be subtitled A Debate In One Sitting gives you a hint. It's a messy, many-handed family drama: part social satire, part farcical comedy of manners, and all one big vehicle for Shaw to show off with – a playpen for him to thrash out his thoughts on love, on politics, and everything in between.
We're in the sunroom at the Surrey seat of underwear magnate John Tarleton, an old-style philanthropist-capitalist. Tarleton's daughter, the frustrated Hypatia, is to marry Bunny, the barely pubescent son of ex-colonial governor and proper posho Lord Summerhays. Throw in a dashing Polish acrobat crash-landing in the garden and the abrupt intrusion of a gun-toting socialist reformer, and the whole thing spirals into chaos. It's class war in the conservatory. Eight marriage proposals and several fights later, and no-one's nose is clean come the conclusion. This madcap menagerie of entitled teenagers, sex-mad sexagenarians and reckless radicals are all exposed for the a**eholes they are.
Which is very much Shaw's intention, of course. Ungainly though his play is, one can't help but appreciate his dazzling dialogue, his caustic wit, and his intimate familiarity with the sophisticated stratification of society. But what Miller's production doesn't impart is any sense of timeliness, of relevance, of Shaw's progressive exposés having something to say today. And it really should, because for all its scattergun satire, there's plenty in Misalliance that should resound deafeningly in 2017: the subversion of gender roles, the grandstanding of anti-capitalist rhetoric, and particularly the presence of lecherous older men.
But it doesn't, largely because it's hampered by an uneven cast. There are some superb performances: Luke Thallon, brilliant in Albion, is excellent again here as an arrogant aristocrat love-rival, as is Jordan Mifsud as the fervently Fabian intruder. Elsewhere, though, no-one seems to find the same wavelength. Pip Donaghy delivers a severely misjudged turn as the patriarchal Tarleton. He's supposed to be an abusive older man, callous in his treatment of women and calculating in his manipulation of others. What Donaghy provides is a doddery old codger with as much predatory instinct as a Werther's Original.
There's no bite in his bark, no Weinstein in his waddle. And it's this tangible lack of tension that lets Miller's production fall flat. It rants and it rails, but it rarely reaches further. It's all a bit, well, misalligned.
Misalliance runs at the Orange Tree Theatre until 20 January 2018.