The Orange Tree Theatre finally returns to lift its proverbial curtain with Shaw Shorts. These two single act plays deliver a romp into the witticisms of one of the most prolific playwrights of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and a favourite of the theatre.
In a style that’s is reminiscent of the cuckolding in Restoration theatre, Shaw’s light-hearted exploration of adultery is presented here in How He Lied to Her Husband and Overruled. The double bill of these short plays could quite happily be separate acts of a singular play in both their themes and direction.
When her love affair is threatened with exposure, Aurora begins to spiral as she desperately seeks to recover or mitigate the fallout of Henry’s lost love letters in How He Lied to Her Husband. Whilst in Overruled, a pair struggle with their feelings for one another when they discover that they are both already married.
Artistic Director Paul Miller, who directs both plays, brings a fluidity to the theatres in-the-round format, keeping the action in almost constant motion across a simplistic set. In the former play, the actors flow through the space like silk as if their eyes are cameras, directing our journey through the play. What is most impressive is the effortless nature with which this is executed, each movement always feeling intentioned and purposeful, never just to facilitate blocking but rather to accomplish some inward yearning, and as such always driven by the text.
In Overruled, there is an initial change of gears. While the internalised drive continues, the action stills to create a palpable tension between the couple, with a performance by Alex Bhat which is addictive to watch — totally consuming with his intense presence and his fixation on Mrs Juno (played here by Hara Yannas).
The heightened nature of Shaw’s text is made to feel current through its totally natural performance, always conveying the sense no matter the pace of the text. Where the specificities of the period references may be lost on the audience, their significance and meaning are still fully conveyed thanks to the delivery and reaction of the cast, filling them with an unmistakable reality in the present day. Dorothea Myer-Bennett’s mastery of the throwaway-line resounds in the audience with booms of laughter, whilst Joe Bolland’s performance as a poet in love woes our hearts.
Throughout, the cast not only match the characters stakes within the plays, conveying the immediacy of their situations, but they push those stakes to their limits. This intensifies the comedy of the scenes and allows the characters to turn on a dime so effortlessly, taking the audience in a direction that we did not expect whilst maintaining the believability of the scene.
With all the new writing emerging following a year of creative suppression, it’s delightful to see how current a classic play can feel. With nothing less than the highest standards of performance, the Orange Tree is making a glorious return to what we hope will soon be show-business as usual.