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The Philanderer review at Orange Tree Theatre, London – ‘gently radical’

Mark Tandy and Christopher Staines in The Philanderer at Orange Tree, Theatre. Photo: Richard Davenport Mark Tandy and Christopher Staines in The Philanderer at Orange Tree, Theatre. Photo: Richard Davenport
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It is disheartening to realise that a comedy of manners written in the late 1800s can still serve as a relevant reflection on our society’s treatment of women. Skilfully balancing the play’s serious insights and frivolous humour, director Paul Miller brings The Philanderer, another of Bernard Shaw’s earlier works to the Orange Tree, following his 2014 production of Widower’s Houses.

The story follows cad-about–town Charteris – a charismatic Rupert Young – as he manipulates, charms, and condescends to every woman he encounters.  Things become complicated, however, when he is caught between Helen Bradbury’s rationalist Grace, and Dorothea Myer-Bennett’s volatile Julia.

For all the plot’s farcical contrivances, Shaw ensures that each of the play’s women is pursuing her own goal, be it an unrequited love, an acrimonious separation, or access to the smoking room. The lively script fizzes with witty one-liners, and though the pace slackens during a lengthy discussion of antiquated divorce laws, the strong cast keeps the energy high and the dialogue snappy.

This sense of playfulness carries through in Simon Daw’s elegant design, which sees dainty cakes served from a doctor’s instrument trays, and a bust of Ibsen suspended from the ceiling in a halo of lights. This last touch is entirely appropriate in a play can be read as an extended essay on ‘Ibsenite’ thinking. Shaw explicitly contrasts that egalitarian viewpoint with the archaic sexism of his time, but also skewers those, like Charteris, who make a show of defying convention merely to pursue their own agendas.

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Diverting revival of a gently radical drawing room comedy