Nothing says Christmas quite like three hours of George Bernard Shaw, so the Orange Tree has programmed a rare revival of his 1909 oddity ‘Misalliance’, a long-winded meditation on marriage.
Shaw once said glumly, ‘All I hear in my work is the sound of the typewriter’, and it's easy to see why. But for all its verbosity – it’s entirely comprised of drawing room conversation – ‘Misalliance’ does contain some memorable aphorisms and an action-packed second half.
Set in the large home of a nouveau riche lingerie seller, it skewers the hypocrisies of the Edwardian era while giving some eerie predictions for our own. The sight of two 60-plus men propositioning much younger women certainly gives pause for thought.
There are eight marriage proposals in all, though few succeed. The primary objects of desire are Hypatia Tarleton, daughter of the aforementioned lingerie baron, and Szczepanowska, a Polish trapeze artist who literally drops from the sky when her plane crashes into the Tarletons’ greenhouse.
The plane is piloted by the rogueish Joey Percival (Luke Thallon), a schoolfriend of Bentley ‘Bunny’ Summerhays whose engagement to Hypatia is soon thrown into jeopardy by his arrival. Meanwhile, Bentley's father Lord Summerhays (Simon Shepherd) harbours his own intentions for his would-be daughter-in-law.
Paul Miller’s production, the first major revival since the 1980s, is a real ensemble effort. Marli Siu is a steely Hypatia, who delivers many of the stand-out lines (‘who would risk marrying a man for love?’), and Tom Hanson has fun as her brutish brother Johnny. As their parents, Pip Donaghy entertains as frustrated intellectual Mr Tarleton, who names authors like punctuation, while Gabrielle Lloyd’s Mrs Tarleton brings some much-needed common sense to proceedings.
As Lina, Lara Rossi gets to deliver the standout speech when she decries the institution of marriage altogether. But the most eye-catching performance comes from Rhys Isaac-Jones, who pitches Bunny somewhere between Jacob Rees-Mogg and Julian Clary. However, for all its flamboyance this approach undermines the character’s nerdish charm.
It’s admirable that Miller is giving stage space to another Shavian rarity; but with its uneven plotting and exhaustive length this is one best recommended to collectors.