This indispensable theatre, which still operates without a regular Arts Council grant, has lately become a Shavian outpost. Following revivals of Widowers’ Houses and The Philanderer, Paul Miller now brings us another relative rarity: a play Shaw wrote in 1909 that moves from disquisitory drama to anarchic comedy and that offers as much intellectual stimulus as anything you’re likely to see this Christmas.
Two things hold the play together: Shaw’s capacity to strip off social masks and his explicit feminism. The action takes place in the country garden in Hindhead, Surrey, of a self-made linen draper, Tarleton. But, just as the money-making Tarleton turns out to be a bookish man of ideas, a colonial aristocrat emerges as a gullible romantic and his weakling son as a manipulative monster.
The women, however, are the pivotal figures. Tarleton’s daughter, Hypatia, who yearns to be “an active verb”, becomes an ardent sexual pursuer on the lines of Ann Whitefield in Man and Superman. Even more astonishing is Lina, a Polish acrobat who drops out of the skies halfway through and proceeds to juggle with the helplessly smitten men.
There are times in the first half when what one character calls the “talky-talk” becomes a touch oppressive. But the action takes wing with the descent of a pair of aviators and reveals Shaw’s irrepressible comic gift that, in many ways, anticipates Ionesco, the Goons and Monty Python. When Lina imperiously demands a Bible and six oranges, the implacably middle-class Mrs Tarleton wonders why she should want the former on a weekday.
A portable Turkish bath also yields a gun-toting revolutionary who defiantly announces: “Rome fell, Babylon fell, Hindhead’s turn will come.” Under all the fun, Shaw suggests – as he later does in Heartbreak House – that we are watching a doomed class on the brink of disruptive change.
Miller’s production steers us skilfully through the talk and produces a number of highly accomplished performances. Lara Rossi brings to Lina a laser-beam intensity and palpable disdain for the preoccupation with love-making. Marli Siu vividly demonstrates Hypatia’s hunger for joy and suffering, and there is excellent work from Pip Donaghy as the bombastic Tarleton, Gabrielle Lloyd as his severely practical wife and Tom Hanson as their smugly philistine son. An evening as good as this, however, poses an obvious question: why doesn’t the British theatre do more Shaw?
• At the Orange Tree, Richmond, until 20 January. Box office: 020-8940 3633.