“Yeugh!” exclaims a woman in the audience during the second (of three) acts in this very enjoyable, 125-year-old rom com of sorts – and jeez, does she speak for the whole crowd. The titular Candida (Claire Lams) has just uttered something truly vom-inducing in a conversation with her husband, the Rev James Morell (Martin Hutson), about the central problem of the story. The pair have taken an 18-year-old poet, Eugene Marchbanks (Joseph Potter), into their home. Eugene has confessed to James the issue eating at his heart: he’s in love with Candida, and believes fervently that given the choice, she will leave James for him. Then, lamenting the situation to James, Candida expresses concern that if the first woman Eugene ends up falling in love with turns out to be callous, it will warp his understanding of love, and the poor sensitive chap may never “forgive me for not teaching him myself”. Cue collective boke.
During the interval, this development left me regretting that theatres ever feel the need to stage plays from past centuries (including the twentieth), because whatever they have to say, surely we can find someone alive today who can say the same thing better? Whatever her agenda (it’s worth pointing out that at one point she does appear to be on the verge of shagging him), it’s hard to get on board with a woman in her thirties seducing a teenager in order to be his “teacher” – especially when it’s nominally for the purposes of comedy. On that point, the tone of the production can be a struggle, and I think that’s because this genre has almost entirely migrated to the screen, where we have tense music and brooding close-ups to signpost the emotional shifts we’re expected to make. Candida could be the Bridget Jones’s Diary of its day, but sometimes feels more like the Twilight of its day.
Anyhoo, Shaw’s play does redeem itself in the final act, when it becomes apparent what’s been going on: Candida has been playing her husband off against the young pretender, for fun and moral instruction. Earlier on it’s frustrating how little time on stage is given to the eponymous heroine; when Candida finally takes control of the proceedings, though, Lams is tremendous, dishing out line after line of sharp-pointed advice and assessment to the two gormless men in front of her, with aplomb. Her performance channels Prunella Scales’s Sybil Fawlty to such an extent that I’d put money on John Cleese and Connie Booth having taken inspiration from Candida when they created Fawlty Towers.
The production is nicely handled by director Paul Miller and seems rehearsed to within an inch of its life, with barely a beat dropped. Hutson and Potter are both impressive given the tonal shifts mentioned above, which must make these parts difficult parts to play, especially the ludicrous Marchbanks. But the question remains, why put this on now?
Aside from offering a mildly more highbrow festive entertainment alternative to Last Christmas, I think it’s because Candida has something to contribute to conversations we’re having in culture right now about damaged and damaging forms of masculinity. Shaw’s neat trick is the gradual fall in our estimations of the character of James Morell. At first he seems likeable, totally progressive – in contrast to Candida’s dad (Michael Simkins), a miserly old Tory businessman – and absolutely chill about other men fancying his wife. But he becomes petulant and insecure as the story develops. What he himself believes is emotional maturity is later shown to be arrogance and privilege. Morell is what we would these days recognise as a woke bro, a concept that would have been difficult to explain to many people even five years ago. For this reason, Candida might actually resonate better now than at any point in the last century.
Candida is on at the Orange Tree Theatre till 11th January. More info here.