Writer: George Bernard Shaw
Director: Nadia Fall
Reviewer: Sheila Cornelius
In this play, first staged in 1906, Shaw seized the opportunity to air his socialist views on private medical practice. The National Theatre’s beautifully staged revival of his minor masterpiece chimes with current issues around public health and moral choices in a time of scarce resources. A romantic sub-plot and witty dialogue help the message, if not the medicine, go down, in one of the writer’s blackest comedies.
It’s a play of two halves and of two sensibilities – a world of money-grabbing opulence set against hand-to-mouth Bohemian poverty. Neill Austen’s atmospheric lighting design and Nadia Fall’s crisp direction ensure that the play is a pleasure to watch despite its Shavian wordiness.
For me, the first half is the most entertaining with a truly comical opening scene. Emmy, (Maggie McCarthy) plays the standard bossy housekeeper, showing a string of well-dressed gents into the Harley Street consulting room of her employer, Sir Colenso Ridgeon. They call to congratulate him on his recent knighthood, awarded for successful treatment of TB patients. First to arrive is the cynical Sir Patrick Cullen, (David Calder). Medical discoveries, he says, recur at 15 year intervals.
The frock-coated specialists talk of medical developments and of having ‘killed a few people and cured a few people’. It’s clear that gullible patients are their main stock in trade. Pompous windbag Sir Bloomfield Bonington (Malcolm Sinclair) specialises in ‘stimulating the phagocytes’, while surgeon Cutler Walpole, (Robert Portal) swears by removing a patient’s ‘nuciform sac’. Dr Schutzmacher (Paul Hertzberg) simply displays a ‘cure guarantee’ sign to keep the money rolling in.
The exception is humble Dr Blenkinsop (Derek Hutchinson) who practises in a poor area. He dresses shabbily and relies on public transport.
Beautiful Jennifer Dubedat (Genevieve O’Reilly) begs Sir Colenso to cure her husband Louis (Tom Burke) of TB. When she shows the evidence of Louis’s artistic genius, the middle-aged doctor admires the drawings and falls in love with Jennifer, half his age. But Sir Colenso is already beyond capacity with patients. To take on the talented Dubedat will mean condemning another patient to death, in this case honest Blenkinsop, who also has TB. The doctor’s dilemma is not made easier when some unpleasant facts emerge about Dubedat.
The second and less convincing half of the play is set in the artist’s studio. Peter McIntosh’s set effectively contrasts the smart world of private medicine with the attractive chaos of the artist’s studio, enhanced by Matthew Scott’s discreet musical background of popular period arias. Further plot twists keep the audience interested together with Jennifer’s naked breasts, drawn by Louis at the beginning of the scene. The acting of the young lovers seems to lack conviction and their characters too weak. Jennifer has to be protected from knowing her husband’s true nature and Louis’s stage time is restricted, unusual for a character acting largely as Shaw’s mouthpiece to criticise top-hatted hypocrisy. However, a surprise ending provides a final twist to the entertaining moral maze.