As Lansley, Cameron et al set about demolishing the NHS, it's instructive of the National Theatre to revive this 1906 Bernard Shaw satire on pompous private practice doctors. But unlike Nicholas Hytner's scorching 'Timon of Athens' – which opened in the Olivier last week – long-time NT assistant director Nadia Fall's first production at the helm in this building is not overtly politicised.
It is, however, funny, well-acted, well-paced and possessed of four ravishing period sets courtesy of Peter McKintosh; all qualities that go to make up for Fall's lesser assurance with the darker, more complex elements of this morality comedy (subtitled 'a tragedy' by tireless social reformer Shaw).
The action begins in the offices of eminent physician Colenso Ridgeon (Aden Gillett), who has just discovered he is to be knighted. In short order the room is filled with his spendidly bewhiskered and boisterous peers, here to offer semi-sincere congratulations. Most of the fun comes from these oddball practitioners, who seem to regard medicine as a sort of noble sport, in which the pursuit is more important than the outcome.
Morally they're reprehensible, but they're a good larf: particularly entertaining is Malcolm Sinclair's windbag Sir Ralph, whose hearty moustache waggles hypnotically as he emits a vertiable jet stream of hot air, and Robert Portal's hearty, shock-haired Cutler Walpole, who believes everything is a case of blood poisoning.
Gillett's Rigeon is both saner and more talented than the rest, which is why the dilemma of the title is his to bear. Should he give the last place on his successful tuberculosis treatment programme to his kindly but useless colleague, Blenkinsop (Derek Hutchinson)? Or to Tom Burke's Louis Dubedat, a talented but completely immoral young artist with a beautiful, adoring wife (Genevieve O'Reilly)?
Gillett gives a great performance as a fundamentally decent man whose moral compass has been knocked sideways by a profession that demands he plays God. But Fall's production never quite comes to the boil. The doctors are a hoot, but Burke and O'Reilly feel underpowered. It means the emotional stakes of the dilemma are less than they ought to be, and the production struggles for gravitas beyond Gillett's performance.
Still, it's a slick and entertaining evening, worth seeing purely for the magnificent arsenal of facial topiary the cast has gamely sprouted.