George Bernard Shaw died in 1950, so the copyright for his work expired at the start of 2021. This might mean we’re in for a forthcoming flurry of UK productions of his plays, although actually I probably wouldn’t bet on it. Bernard Shaw’s biggest champion in today’s theatre for a while now has been Paul Miller, who has staged four of his early plays since becoming Artistic Director of the Orange Tree in 2014, each receiving Michael Billington’s nods of approval for their witty Fabian social commentary. Miller isn’t yet scraping the barrel with this double-bill of How He Lied to Her Husband and Overruled – they’re both solid chortlers, maybe occasional chucklers, if that’s your thing – but I wouldn’t exactly call them searingly urgent.
Still, I think it makes sense as a way to kick things back off at the Orange Tree. At the moment the theatre is in Phase One of its post-pandemic seating plans, and even on press night the house felt quite empty, with big gaps between bubbled seats sucking up sound. You probably don’t want to stage something that has the potential to be a huge big-hitter when you can’t sell at capacity, but some short, light entertainment that should appeal to the local Richmond crowd works well.
Simon Daw’s design is quite sparse, like the seating: a padded bench centre stage, and a small table. In How He Lied to Her Husband, there’s a delicate little pale blue and mauve posy laid on the table, which turns into a vase of massive spikey orange flowers for Overruled. The switch more-or-less captures the respective energies of the two short plays: Overruled is sharper and brighter, both more fun and less charming, than How He Lied to Her Husband.
The costumes bring a bit more to the cocktail party: in How He Lied to Her Husband, society hostess Aurora Bompas (Dorothea Myer-Bennett) wears a very strong dark red silk velvet jumpsuit while her naive admirer, young poet Henry Apjohn (Joe Bolland) perspires awkwardly in a pink velvet blazer, dark blue bow tie and matching cummerbund. Their just-about-believable Edwardianism is undercut when Aurora’s husband Teddy (Jordan Mifsúd) stomps in wearing blue jeans and a man-bun to shift gears for the play’s denouement. (It turns out that Aurora and Henry were dressed up to go to the theatre, to see Bernard Shaw’s Candida: Henry pulls out tickets for the Orange Tree’s 2019 production, chortle chortle.)
Both plays are compact experiments: a Situation arises, complicated hilarity ensues, a final twist, a resolution. In How He Lied to Her Husband, Aurora realises that Henry’s lovelorn poems to her have been discovered by Teddy. The lovers suggest and discard various panicked solutions to the problem until Teddy comes home. In Overruled, Mr Lunn and Mrs Juno fall in love at a seaside hotel, hooray, but they’re married, oh no, but Mr Juno and Mrs Lunn have also begun a liaison, hooray, but neither couple wants to divorce, oh no, etc.
I say ‘compact experiments’ – the notorious trouble with Bernard Shaw still rears its head here, even in these 40 minute plays: they’re too long. It’s only by 10 minutes or so, but some of the better punchlines are frustratingly dissipated in the irrepressible wordiness. (There’s a clue in the title How He Lied to Her Husband, I think, which I’ve forgotten about fifty times already: it’s not a meaningful sentence, it’s not a catchy phrase, it’s a quaintly grammatical string of alliterative words, agh.) Characters just can’t stop themselves proposing new straw man arguments in order to make the same vague point in a blithely droll way. Fair play to the stamina levels of early twentieth-century audiences, because both plays were first staged as part of longer nights than Shaw Shorts.
Miller and the cast do a pretty good job of bringing out the best bits, though, on the whole. There are genuinely funny lines: Aurora wishes she had a more ordinary name, like “Mary Jane, or Gladys Muriel, or Guinevere”; Mr Lunn only realises that Mrs Juno’s “poor, dear” husband isn’t dead when she reveals that “there’s something pathetic to me about men: I find myself calling them poor So-and-So when there’s nothing whatever the matter with them.” Alex Bhat as Mr Lunn manages the convoluted Shavian witticisms with particular flair. He leaps skinnily about like an intelligent puppy in a nice petrol blue suit: wolfish, neurotic, loveable-if-you-ignore-the-
I don’t think either the plays has a ton to say about love or society – Overruled makes a semi-case for “polyandry” and there’s a hint of class snobbery in Teddy Bompas’s description of his wife as “the smartest woman in the smartest set in South Kensington” (sibilantly delivered by Mifsúd) – but they’re enjoyable comedies. Shaw Shorts is a pleasant evening, and maybe right now that’s enough.
Shaw Shorts is on at the Orange Tree Theatre till 26th June. More info here.