In his seminal Drama from Ibsen to Brecht, Raymond Williams’s dismisses George Bernard Shaw’s Widowers’ Houses - the playwright’s 1892 play on the subject of “slum-landlordism” - as “a crude intrigue melodrama, mechanically contrived to be explicitly rhetorical about slums, and to involve everyone on the stage in a condonation of criminality.” The play, the critic contends, is “very thin stuff.” But such complaints aren’t borne out by Paul Miller’s strong, spry, swift production, just opened at the Orange Tree, which makes a good case for the play as a work of much greater interest and appeal than Williams’s remarks suggest.
The play, Shaw’s first, addresses the moral quagmire faced by the young Dr. Harry Trench, when he learns that the father of his fiancée makes his money from exploiting impoverished tenants. But as the drama weighs the perspectives of its protagonists – from the landlord Sartorius, the fiancée Blanche , the agent Lickcheese and Trench’s prissy chum Cokane - it gradually becomes apparent - in true ironical Shavian fashion – that Trench himself is much more deeply implicated in the exploitation than he would have imagined.
As an investigation of London’s housing problems, Widowers’ Houses doesn’t lack for timeliness or contemporary relevance. Starting out as highly mannered, epigram-heavy comedy of the English abroad (casually xenophobic and forever consulting their Baedekers), the piece gradually moves into darker territory, showing all of its characters to be motivated by financial concerns. The ironies aren’t subtle, but they are pointedly and thought-provokingly made, though the play trips up a little in its final stretch, which includes an unlikely transformation for one character.
Miller’s production finds exactly the right tonal balance for the first two Acts, though, and is aided by the efforts of a great cast. Patrick Drury’s Sartorious combines affability with quiet steeliness and menace to compelling effect. Stefan Adegbola does delicious high style comedy as the pompous Cokane, forever taking Trench to task for his lack of “taste” and “tact”. Alex Waldmann, as Trench, subtly shows sweetness and social conscience morphing into spinelessness. And Rebecca Collingwood makes an absolutely terrific professional debut as the pert, unpleasant Blanche, expressing her hatred of “the poor” and memorably turning on her maid (Lotti Maddox) with startling ferocity. Not a play without some flaws, then, but this is a fine, funny and intelligent production.Booking until 31 January. Further information here.