George Bernard Shaw’s first play Widowers’ Houses may have originally been staged in 1892 but the issues at the heart of it remain remarkably pertinent today. As one of his ‘Plays Unpleasant’ it deals with unsavoury aspects of late Victorian society that were usually swept under the carpet of middle-class respectability, but sadly its exposé of the unacceptable face of capitalism in terms of greedy exploitation by buy-to-let landlords is all too true today.
Showing the influence of Oscar Wilde, Widowers’ Houses starts off as a light romantic comedy but develops into a devastating social critique. The young aristocratically connected doctor Harry Trench is holidaying on the Rhine with his pompously conventional friend Cokane when he falls in love with and proposes to the attractively direct Blanche who is accompanied by her forbiddingly protective father Sartorius, a rich property owner. He is prepared to let the marriage go ahead if his daughter is guaranteed a respectful welcome by Harry’s family.
But when back in London Harry finds out Sartorius has made his wealth as a slum landlord, he refuses to accept any of his money, only to be told that his own modest private income is already funded from Sartorius’s dodgy business. And in a fit of hurt pride for not putting her interests first Blanche breaks of the engagement, as entrenched stands threaten personal happiness.
As always Shaw leavens his socialist politics with humour but here a surprising amount of real anger and passion breaks through the polished surface of polite manners. The exploitation of tenants now may be more likely to revolve more around extortionate rent than appalling living conditions, but Shaw also forcefully shows how different elements of a capitalist system are interlinked so that many people are implicated in the profits from social injustice. It’s a complex presentation of shared responsibility and moral dilemmas, rather than a black and white polemic.
The Orange Tree’s Artistic Director Paul Miller provides admirably crisp and lucid direction of a play that by Shavian standards is unusually compact. Simon Daw’s uncluttered design features a Victorian ‘poverty street-map’ of London and a floor projection of a £20 bank note, which literally underlies the characters’ actions.
In an excellently rounded performance, Patrick Drury not only conveys the quietly intimidating authority of Sartorius, a self-made man who has known real poverty, but also his concern to raise his much-loved daughter well above it. Rebecca Collingwood makes an outstanding professional debut as Blanche, an irresistible mix of flirtatious charm and steely determination. Alex Waldmann shows how the boyishly laid-back Harry strains under an enforced reassessment of his values, while Stefan Adegbola’s Cokane is happy to follow the money as long as decorum is observed.
And as the deliciously named Lickcheese, Simon Gregor impressively transforms himself from deferential rent collector to boastful property dealer, as at the end he lures the others into a fraudulent scheme that leaves perhaps the bitterest aftertaste of any of Shaw’s plays.