George Bernard Shaw’s first full-length play is currently being revived at the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond, and provides further evidence of the writer’s potent contemporary relevance. Widowers’ Houses begins as a light comedy, as a young doctor, Harry Trench, falls in love with spirited Blanche Sartorius while on holiday in Europe. The first act is almost Wildean in its wit and charm, but when Trench discovers that his future father-in-law’s wealth derives from his profits as a slum landlord, the play becomes a debate about the exploitation of the poor. The issue is not simple, as it is suggested that the system itself is corrupt and even concerned individuals such as Trench are not wholly free from guilt.
Considering the play dates from 1892, it is astonishing how contemporary it feels, particularly given recent reports about the lack of affordable London housing and longstanding low-income tenants being priced out of their homes by greedy landlords. The romantic plot might be of its time, but Sartorius’ attempts to justify his behaviour, Trench’s alternating horror and guilt and Blanche’s casual callousness are all up-to-date.
The cast is fine: I particularly liked Patrick Drury as the perfectly pleasant, gentlemanly Sartorius, a reminder that villains can and do come cloaked in a veneer of respectability. Alex Waldmann and Rebecca Collingwood with their characters’ strongly differing personalities add spark to the central relationship, while Stefan Adegbola and Simon Gregor, as Trench’s friend Cokane and rent collector Lickcheese, inject some light humour to proceedings with their larger-than-life portrayals.
Altogether, Paul Miller’s revival is a strong production of an important play that, sadly, remains as relevant as ever in the current climate.