Major Barbara @ Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond

cast list
Robert Austin
Octavia Walters
Jacqueline King
David Antrobus
Charity Reindorp
Mark Frost

directed by
Sam Walters
This revival of the play by George Bernard Shaw is part of a wider celebration of the playwright at the Orange Tree Theatre. Written in 1905, this is a work that, like the recent production of The Madras House by Harley Granville-Barker, focuses on people fighting for what is morally right in the face of massive social injustice and poverty.

Major Barbara places beneath the microscope the Undershaft family. The mother (Jacqueline King) and father (Robert Austin) have been estranged for a long time, leaving the morally superior Lady Undershaft to bring up her son and two daughters alone. Daughter Sarah (Charity Reindorp) has chosen a bumbling idiot of a fianc (Matt Houlihan) while son Stephen (Nicholas Gadd) has washed his hands of his father, an arms manufacturer, who longs for a more morally-sound career as a politician!

The main focus of the play is Barbara Undershaft (played by Orange Tree regular Octavia Walters), a Major in the Salvation Army she is engaged to Adolphus, who we suspect worships Barbara more than having a true calling in the Salvation Army. The first half concerns Barbaras battle for the soul of Bill Walker, a violent drunk played with great menace and charisma by Mark Frost. The tension and chemistry between these two actors is wonderful and makes for a very exciting denouement to the first half. Barbara displays an almost frightening belief that what she is doing is not just right but Gods plan for her.

Intense as these earlier episodes are, this is an uneven play, the first half is very good, especially the sequences between Walters and Frost, however it loses momentum and focus in the second half and Shaws moralizing comes much more to the fore. The characters slowly morph into vessels for him to work out his ideas.

There are some nice touches to Sam Walters production. William Roberts design uses simple packing cases to great effect, allowing the actors space to deliver Shaws often dense and complex speeches. The cases are made to represent an upper-class drawing room, a shelter, and ultimately, the arms factory. Johns Harris lighting grills in the floor and reflective metal sheets on the ceiling add a terrifyingly slick and mechanized feel to Undershafts factory.

The Orange Tree is the only theatre marking Shaws anniversary, which seems unusual. But they have gone about it in an intelligent and accessible way and their planned programme, incorporating the work of his peers, is in many ways preferable to a big West End revival.

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