When Channel 4 began 40 years ago with a remit to radicalise British TV, there was some surprise that its early dramas included a Sunday peak-time broadcast of a West End production of George Bernard Shaw’s Arms and the Man, an 1894 farce set during the Serbo-Bulgarian war.
The disruptive network, though, had made a learned choice: Shaw was proto-feminist and pacifist, his ridicule of nationalist militarism feeling, just after the Falklands conflict, much closer to home than its Balkan setting.
The Orange Tree theatre in Richmond’s revival confirms that Shaw’s female roles remain among the most satisfying in the canon while references to the ambitions and incompetence of the Russian army and the rights of refugees collect a new context.
The play is flimsily hung on a fur coat, which shields the modesty of Raina, a young Bulgarian woman, when a fleeing Serb, Bluntschli, seeks refuge in her bedroom. It then keeps warm the “Chocolate Cream Soldier” (the interloper is sweet-toothed). Showing Shaw as an expert farceur, the garment causes multiple misunderstandings involving Raina’s soldier fiance Sergius and her household.
For Shaw, public persona is often a coat – surface heroes prove weak, cowards courageous, romantics pragmatic – and Paul Miller, completing a tenure as artistic director that has included six Shaws, wins performances of spectacular pretence and pretentiousness from seven impeccable actors.
Alex Bhat, as show-off Sergius, is the ultimate poseur, achieving extraordinary contortions of face and form, his preparation for signing a document resembling an Olympic javelin thrower’s run-up. As the shrugging Bluntschli, Alex Waldmann neatly peels the many layers of the Swiss mercenary. Rebecca Collingwood beautifully moves from Raina’s love-struck personality, adopted from operetta, to reveal the steely Shavian modern woman beneath. Kemi Awoderu and Jonah Russell achieve maximum impact-to-lines ratio as servants who, true to Shaw’s socialism, might be downstairs but have a lot going on upstairs. Jonathan Tafler and Miranda Foster mine every glance and nuance in the most stereotypical roles of Raina’s barking army father and his smarter wife.
A last gift to the theatre he has so enterprisingly run (having lost his Arts Council England grant on day one in office), Miller’s re-boxing of the Chocolate Cream Soldier story finds both its comic sugar highs and occasional hard centres.
At the Orange Tree theatre, London, until 14 January. Available on demand, 17-20 January.