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Arms and the Man

Coventry Evening Telegraph, 27th February 1975, David Isaacs

This is the most satisfying evening I’ve spent in this theatre in two years.

It’s a happy coincidence – but no more – that a new-style first night should feature a production by its former director, Peter Dews.

This clear, comic production of one of Shaw’s lighter pieces has the advantage of some first-rate acting, a fine setting by Finlay James, which is admirably and quickly adapted after the first act, and a genuine and simple understanding of the play’s objectives.

It’s the story of the ‘chocolate cream soldier’ – the professional who rejects society’s stances and sophistications to a level which amounts to a more genuine sophistication – a man who uses the excesses of others to demonstrate that simplicity has more virtues than is generally recognised.

Shaw uses the device of a military situation. The play is set in the late 19th century and the hero, Captain Bluntschli, is a man who sees through himself as well as those with whom he comes into contact.

He’s sheltered, as a refugee, by a girl and her mother, each of whom he later meets in circumstances which are starkly different from their first encounter.

Michael Pennington – an admirable actor – plays Bluntschli with a good humour, an inventiveness and understanding which stamp him once again as one of the most promising of our young actors.

Some of his recent work with the Royal Shakespeare Company was first class. Here again, he is given the opportunity to extend his range. He does so with a combination of flair and technique which is compelling.

Bernard Lloyd – another member of the RSC, who has distinguished himself at Stratford in middle-lead roles – knocks off his pompous, brave officer with a committed upper-middle-class air of mistaken certainty, which wins its fair share of audience appreciation.

The young Jane Wymark, as the heroine, seems to be taking her stiff superiority so far that it is difficult to believe she will ever manage to leave the pedestal with credibility. In fact, she does so in a way which is not only credible but also marks her as an actress of real potential.

Petronella Ford – who seems to me still to be ridiculously underestimated – knows her place within the terms of the play but still manages to achieve a great deal as the servant, Louka.

Patsy Byrne – yet another ex-RSC member – is at her best for some time in the role of the mother, blustering about with impeccable timing and winning Immediate and well-merited reward from her audience.

Norman Ettinger makes a handsome contribution as the head of the household to round off a standard of acting we haven’t seen at the Birmingham Rep for some time.

I mentioned the new-style first night. It includes a free programme, a draw in the interval for a bottle of champagne, a gift token offering a reduced-price seat for the next first night and a late bar.

All of which is very pleasant – but it would have meant nothing without this concise, clear and committed production.

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