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Major Barbara

Daily Mail, 15th May 1998, Michael Coveney

Amazing how Shaw’s 1906 contains so much we know. The committed Salvation Army lass’s father is the wicked arms manufacturer.

He visits her shelter in West Ham. In return, she visits his utopian factory of war in a new town.

And hovering between these topographical extremes is a drawing room classic of moral and ethical debate hinging on the succession to a fortune.

Who will inherit? Who can be bought? What price morality? What exactly is the possible compromise between material safety and principled behaviour?

Jemma Redgrave gives voice to Barbara’s political vocation in General Booth’s Army with a quavering sincerity while never really igniting the character with persuasive passion.

Frankly, I found all the acting in Sir Peter Hall’s production slightly constipated.

But Peter Bowles is a wonderfully sardonic, lightweight Undershaft, a figure of pragmatic power who cheerfully profiteers in mutilation and murder.

Domestic tiffs spin off into abstract debate.

The play now embraces not only the arms-for-Africa saga, but the issue of entrepreneurial influence in politics and the media.

And indeed sponsorship. Barbara insists that money for the shelter and the movement must be pure, unsullied by the profits of distillers and other capitalists.

The arguments become too circuitous for a production that lacks genuine fire. But we finally accept that pipers call the tune and pay the wages.

And Barbara will work tactically within that reality to preserve her idealism.

Sir Peter lays on a blood-red premonition of the First World War as Barbara’s lover, the opportunistic Greek professor Adolphus Cusins, sups with the devil.

Mr Bowles and David Yelland as the greasy Greek scholar occupy two really great Shavian roles with wit and expertise, and Anna Carteret shines brightly as the imperious Lady Britomart of Wilton Crescent.

The high point is the great second act in the shelter, with Michael Pennington as the well-read, laid-off fitter and Dickon Tyrrell as the shockingly violent dosser caught between his love life and the comforts of Christian hospitality.

Here, you feel Shaw is really touching us across the decades with remarkable prescience and poetic fury.

A fine evening.

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