Hypatia Tarleton (Marli Siu) is a young woman in demand. She’s beautiful and intelligent, spirited and a little fiery. And her father is also filthy rich. Part of the nouveau riche, if you will. For this is Edwardian England and her old man, Mr Tarleton (Pip Donaghy) has made his fortune in the underwear business – an indelicate area, perhaps, but his money makes his daughter quite a catch – hence why she is betrothed to a member of the upper class, Bentley Summerhays, (Rhys Isaac-Jones), as well as catching the eye of his father!
Her fiancé’s immaturity, arrogance and snootiness may be unbearable but here, at the centre of Bernard Shaw’s comedy about class politics, feminism and that lottery of love, is that subject that so bedevilled class-based comedies – the exchange of status and money for marriage: the Tarletons will get the status that even their money can’t buy, whilst the Summerhays would get their hands on the money that the emerging middle class bring with them; money they are all so short of.
But Hypatia is a modern woman and has something to say about the men arranging her future to suit their own ends…
And so, we plunge into this revival of a Bernard Shaw comedy that is directed beautifully by OT’s Artistic Director, Paul Miller. At times, the writing is very word-heavy, almost intellectual, with long debates on literature, socialism, the social need for libraries, and the yawning gap between parents and their children dominating the first half. But the production keeps its energy with animated performances peppered with laughs.
But what lifts this comedy from the ordinary is its screwball element. A light aircraft crash lands on Tarleton’s vast estate – don’t worry, everyone is alright – but the unexpected arrival of its dashing pilot and his glamorous and mysterious passenger, Lina Szczepanowska (played absolutely brilliantly by Lara Rossi) injects the already complicated situation with huge doses of lust, passion and gender politics.
The result is a whip-fast second half that is full of witty barbs, ever-increasingly complicated romantic entanglements and attractions – and a huge revelation about one person’s past. It all makes for an enjoyable, even farcical, spiral towards the play’s fulfilling and satisfactory climax.
One of the most interesting aspects of this production, though, is how Paul Miller decided to approach the portrayal of the two older men in this play – Mr Tarleton and, his friend, Lord Summerhays (Simon Shepherd). With their respective fascinations with younger women, these two could well have been portrayed as lecherous men willing to use (and abuse) their relative positions of power to take advantage of women. (Indeed, reading the text you understand how this may well have been done elsewhere and that may explain why this is the play’s first major revival in over thirty years.)
Now, in the current climate especially, this would have been both troubling and interesting. But, either way, this would certainly have somewhat scuppered this as a comedy to our modern ears and eyes. Instead, the men are played more as bumbling fools, outwitted, outplayed and out-empathised by the women around them. It’s a nice move, and one that keeps this comedy on track, making this a fun evening out rather than an anxious one.
As ever with the Orange Tree, Misalliance is beautifully produced and superbly acted. A fun, feisty comedy with just the right kind of spice for the festive season. Bright and enjoyable.
Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond, to January 20, 2018
Tickets from £12.
All production images by Helen Maybanks.