Writer: Bernard Shaw
Director: Michael Friend
Reviewer: Joanna Forest
This brand-new production of Arms and The Man is the collaboration of three theatre companies; Shaw 2020, Split/Shift Theatre Company and Michael Friend Productions. Bernard Shaw is considered one of the most important English-Language playwrights after Shakespeare. At least half a dozen of his plays still remains part of the world repertoire and this one, written in 1893, is the first of Shaw’s so-called ‘Plays Pleasant’ and it’s a gem.
A young and diverse audience gathered to watch at the beautiful setting of the Lauderdale House Tea Lawn, which was great to see as the Shaw 2020 mission is to bring the works of Bernard Shaw to a wider audience. The backdrop to Arms and The Man is the war between Serbia and Bulgaria in the winter of 1885/86. Shaw uses this to explore some of his favourite issues: disillusionment with war, romantic love and social status. The excellent cast, under the expert direction of Michael Friend, transport us from a lovely warm evening in North London to a small town in Bulgaria…
We meet our heroine Raina Petkoff who, after making the kind but rash decision to hide Swiss escaped soldier, Captain Bluntschli, in her bedroom, then has the impossible task of covering this up, even embroiling her mother Catherine Petkoff into aiding and abetting the conspiracy. What then unravels has the audience engaged and on the edge of their seats/picnic blankets, waiting to see if all will be well by the end with many dramatic moments and laughs along the way.
Ahead of his time, Shaw always loved to create strong and intelligent women, and ‘Arms and The Man’ is no exception. Johanna Pearson-Farr beautifully shows us how Raina’s inner self turns out to be more nuanced than her outward appearance while Bluntschli, brilliantly played by Scott Westoby, captures the soldier’s cynical attitude towards war. Jessica Frances is perfect as The Petkoff’s hugely aspirational servant, Louka, desperately trying her best to climb the social ladder and become a lady, in spite of her common status.
Joe Sargent as Nicola, in contrast to Louka, seems happy with his lot as a servant, and Derek Murphy as Sergius Saranoff, despite seeming the perfect solider and gentleman, isn’t quite what he seems. Social norms are shaken up when he falls for Louka, the servant girl. Very different characters both executed beautifully by the actors.
Lainey Shaw and Jonas Cemm as Catherine and Major Paul Petkoff (Head of Household) are a comedy dream team, with brilliant comic chemistry between them, constantly bouncing off one another. If there was a roof on this venue they would have blown it right off.
The costumes, designed by Sarah Pollak, and the set are excellent, cleverly using the outside space to the production’s advantage.
It’s exciting that new. young and vibrant theatre company like Shaw 2020 are bringing us Shaw’s plays in new and creative ways.