Widely considered to be the play that made a name for Bernard Shaw, Arms and the Man get its first London revival in four decades at the Orange Tree Theatre, directed by outgoing artistic director Paul Miller, and follows a successful run of other Bernard Shaw classics.
What makes this production stand out from the ones that came before it, is its sense of playfulness, and it feels like Miller has chosen to finish, deservedly, with a grand last hurrah. Told in three acts, and with two intervals, it’s an ambitious piece for a small theatre, but the intimacy of the Orange Tree Theatre seems to lend itself perfectly to this very funny comedy.
With war raging between the Bulgarians and the Serbians, Raina finds herself missing her father and her fiancé who are both off fighting. The arrival of Bluntschli, a Swiss officer fighting on the side of the Serbs, sets in motion the chain of events that take us through this wonderfully witty odyssey.
Raina takes pity on the soldier and hides him from the Bulgarian cavalry, when the war is finished and with her father Major Petkoff (Jonathan Tafler), and fiancé Sergius (Alex Bhat) back home, Bluntschli (Alex Waldmann) suddenly appears to return the coat that he was smuggled out of the house in, much to the horror of Raina’s mother, Catherine (Miranda Foster).
There’s a touch of an upstairs/downstairs slant to the story too, with servants Louka (Kemi Awoderu) and Nicola (Jonah Russell) playing more pivotal roles in the story than their lowly stations might first suggest.
Simon Daw’s design gives us three distinct sets, one for each act; Raina’s bedroom, the kitchen, and finally the much lauded library, recent fitted with an electric bell. Each is clean and crisp, and serves the script well, equally complemented by Mark Doubleday’s subtle lighting design.
The cast give it their all. Alex Bhat is delightfully flamboyant as the moustachioed Sergius, wringing each line for all it’s worth, then wringing some more for good measure, sending the audience into fits of hilarity at every turn.
As Raina, Rebecca Collingwood captures the innocence and giddiness of a young girl captivated by war and her beloved soldier, contrasting with Kemi Awoderu and Jonah Russell’s nuanced performances of the disillusioned servants. Alex Waldmann’s portrayal of Bluntschli is perhaps the most sensible of the lot, and it cleverly emphasizes the ridiculousness of the situation he finds himself in.
Arms and the Man was originally a hit for Bernard Shaw, not just because it’s extremely funny, but also for its cleverly layered skewering of class, gender stereotypes and the senselessness of war. So many years later, and Paul Miller makes Arms and the Man a hit again in a production that revels in its own absurdity and romanticism.
Arms and the Man is at the Orange Tree Theatre until 14th January 2023.