Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond, London (***)
Like a limbering up for Man and Superman written a decade later, George Bernard Shaw’s The Philanderer is a slightly watered down version of the later play with GBS at his most pugnaciously playful yet more than a little irritating, for all his `enlightened’ views.
GBS, often dubbed a supporter of early feminism, nonetheless remains a product of his time. If Man and Superman’s John Tanner comes close to misogyny in his wit, then The Philanderer’s Leonard Charteris positively luxuriates in it.
The life force be with them! The Philanderer is posited on a clash of titans – Charteris, the self-confessed `philanderer’ – a man who flirts with women but like Tanner veers away from total commitment – and Julia Craven, his oppositional playmate, `a modern woman’ but in Paul Miller’s new revival and as played with gusto by Dorothea Myer-Bennett, one all too easily to be dismissed as a silly, hysterical woman.
Driven painfully by heart rather than head, Julia is set up by Shaw as a too `womanly woman’ in contrast to Charteris’ other love object, the cool, rationalist widow, Grace Tranfield, more than a match for Charteris.
Possibly the wisest character in the play, with typical cynicism she it is who expresses probably GBS’s own view that marriage and seduction is strictly a commercial proposition. Give nothing away for free, is her – and his – maxim.
Giving the devil the best lines (and what a lot of them), GBS characteristically turns social norms on its head in a comedy of manners that debates, like some upmarket women’s mag, on `how to attract and keep your man’, on the niceties of divorce, medical science, vivisection and much else.
Updated with clever, minimalist hints at club and drawing room, Miller’s in-the-round production is light on its feet if sometimes too nimble with its words. Rupert Young’s Charteris particularly rattles off GBS admittedly intimidating accumulation of witty aphorisms as if only too eager to be rid of them.
In the end it’s a production that resonates still to all generations – the young tussling to find a balance between love and respect and the old watching social mores changing before their eyes.
The Philanderer runs at the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond to June 25, 2016
Review first published in Reviewsgate, May 2016