Friday, 24 April 2009

Widowers' Houses' - Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester

Widowers' Houses' by George Bernard Shaw
Director: Greg Hersov
Reviewer: Clare Howdon

Bernard Shaw’s theatrical debut ‘Widowers’ Houses’, first performed in 1892 as a response to the exploitation of the poor by Slum Landlords, has been given a timely revival at the Royal Exchange Theatre under the direction of Greg Hersov.

Coined in 1898 by Shaw as one of three of the ‘Plays: Unpleasant collection’, I was pleasantly surprised that this play ma
naged to entertain the audience throughout as well as raising important socialist comments.

Greg Hersov’s masterful sleight of hand direction ensures that the parallels between Victorian and modern-day Britain are highlighted throughout and audience members are reminded that where human greed and sleaze are concerned, history certainly does repeat itself.

Through both the slick direction and strong ensemble cast, the most is made of the fact that this play is also a romantic comedy of manners as well as biting political satire. Running alongside the exposure of slum landlords, who had grown rich charging extortionate r
ent on London tenements, is a blossoming romance between Blanche Sartorius (Lucy Brigg’s Owen) and young Doctor Harry Trench (Ben Addis). The romance begins during a holiday, blossoms into an engagement and suddenly and explosively finishes when Trench learns that his future father-in-law, Mr. Sartorius (Roger Lloyd Pack) had made his fortune by exploiting the poor. The idealistic Trench then insists that Blanche must live off his limited income, a demand Blanche rejects. The happy yet ironic ending shows that even the idealistic and proud Trench is not above moral corruption.

Shaw had a great talent for writing strong and independent female characters and Blanche Sartorius is no exception. Lucy Briggs-Owen fills these very large shoes with varying degrees of success. The latter scenes between her and Trench are delightful and she is certainly at her best when conveying the petulant side of Blanche’s character, these moments raising some of the biggest laughs of the evening, reflecting her strong comic timing. However, her blossoming relationship with Trench at the beginning of the production is less successful and you never quite believe the initial attraction between the two.

Widowers’ Houses is also notable for Shaw’s creation of one of his finest theatrical monsters, Mr. Sartorius, a seemingly impeccable model of patrician Victorian values who is revealed to be a ruthless slum landlord and he is brought to life in this production by Roger Lloyd Pack. Lloyd Pack uses his strong physical and vocal presence to capture the imposing and lugubrious nature of the character. However there were moments when he seemed a little uncomfortable and hesitant within the role and was unfortunately the least convincing member of the ensemble. The two performances of the night certainly belonged to Ian Bartholomew who excels as self-made scoundrel Mr. Lickcheese and Ian Shaw is perfect as the sniveling bureaucrat William De Burgh Cokane. Both actors deliver thoroughly energized and engaging performances throughout.

Despite the uneven performances, this well-paced and directed production makes for thought-provoking theatre and dismantles our naive belief that society will ever overcome its’ desire to exploit.

Photos: Jonathan Keenan

Widowers' Houses' runs at the Exchnage until Sat 9th May
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