BWW Review: CANDIDA, Orange Tree Theatre
Among the new writing and nurturing of talent during a season at Richmond's Orange Tree Theatre, there is always a revival of a more classic piece. Artistic Director Paul Miller has an historical weakness for Bernard Shaw, with a new version of Candida being the fourth Shaw play he has directed at the theatre since 2014.
Written in 1894, there is something remarkably old-fashioned and a little empty about this play; Candida is caught between two men; her husband, Rev James Morell, and an 18 year-old poet called Eugene Marchbanks. When Morell returns home to find his wife talking intimately with the young man, Candida must apparently choose between them.
Marchbanks believes that domestic chores are far beneath Candida; he would prefer she receives just his love and devotion. In contrast, Morell believes his wife is in need of his protection. Confronted by this, she then asks them to compete in bidding for her love.
Claire Lams neatly avoids any sentimentality as Candida; confident, assured and full of wit and vigour. Despite being in the title role, much action goes on without her. Lams does remarkably well with fairly scant material and ends up neatly playing the men against each other to come out the intellectual superior. She has a nice chemistry with Martin Hutson as a blustering Rev James Morell. Despite the character's swagger and confidence, Hutson shows a stark vulnerability when confronted by, what he thinks is, the potential of losing his wife.
Joseph Potter makes an assured stage debut as a nervy and foppish poet Eugene Marchbanks, who swoons convincingly in his infatuation with Candida. There is a definite frenzy written into the character, but at times Potter comes across as a bit too impassioned and hysterical.
Sarah Middleton is a breath of fresh air as Morell's secretary Miss Garnett; straight-talking and passionate, she lacks any patience for Marchbanks' poetic disposition. Michael Simpkins is also very amusing as Candida's capitalist father. A simpering and giggly Kwaku Mills is a comic standout in the small role of Rev Alexander 'Lexi' Mill.
The cast is highly engaging, have natural movement and gel very well together. The play itself has some very astute and witty dialogue; the manner in which Marchbanks gets under Morell's skin to make him question his wife's commitment to him is interesting to watch.
However, the problem is that it is pretty difficult to believe that Candida has any real choice to make between the men. The play opens with Candida and Morell expressing genuine physical affection and closeness. Their relationship comes across as light-hearted and intimate; Morell does not come across as neglectful of his wife, nor does she seem bored of him. In addition, Marchbanks' feverish character lacks any convincing appeal, except perhaps in his total contrast to Morell. Candida is not even seduced by his poetry, preferring to stare at the reflection of the fire on a poker.
Candida suggests a momentary flirtation with Marchbanks as she helps him remove his jacket by the fireside, but apart from that, she treats and addresses him like a child. She playfully calls him a 'bad boy' and not with any kind of underlying innuendo. Candida is angry about being confronted and bargained over, but it is very hard to believe that Marchbanks poses any real threat to the marriage.
The production looks very handsome. Period costumes are well thought out and many hours must have been spent on Candida's hairstyle alone. Simon Daw's design is very creative for the small space, with printed passages from the Fabian Tracts reflecting Morell's, and indeed Shaw's, socialist beliefs on the floorboards and around the balconies of the theatre.
There is much to like about the staging and cast of this production. The fact that it fails to soar to higher heights is more about Shaw's detail in his story.
Photo Credit: Johan Persson