There was something immediately familiar about the set for the Orange Tree Theatre's production of Bernard Shaw's Widowers' Houses. The stage and circle balconies are decorated with sections of Charles Booth's London Map of Poverty from the 1870's, a map in which Booth undertook a survey and colour coded London's streets based on the level of wealth of the inhabitants. I'd only the day before discovered the map on a visit to the Museum of London.
In hindsight it sets the tone of the play in a way that the opening sequence does not. Harry Trench (Alex Waldmann), a newly qualified doctor, is on holiday with his friend Cokane (Stefan Adegbola) and has fallen for the daughter of a gentleman. Cokane is desperately trying to persuade his friend to observe correct form in order to win the hand of Blanche (Rebecca Collingwood) but Harry doesn't really subscribe to stuffy social etiquette.
What changes this from a comedy of manners is a prop-gun of a line in which Cokane asks Harry if he knows how Blanche's father Satorius (Patrick Drury) came by his money. Satorius is a self-made man, one of the growing group of nouveau riche.The map gives a clue to what turns into a biting, sometimes satirical look at social inequality and exploitation of the poor. It wasn't what I was expecting but all the better for that and is, depressingly, as appropriate today as it was then.
And it isn't as simple Satorious' merely being a bad landlord, Shaw shows how even those with a semblance of a social conscience can be unwittingly complicit.
It would be interesting to know how Shaw's gentle digs at the privileged classes through descriptions of what is and isn't ladylike and gentlemanlike behaviour went down at the time. The irony certainly isn't lost on the contemporary audience.
Widowers Houses is funny but it has a satisfying edge that elevates it. The cast is superb although I did think Collingwood was a little too psycho-bitch for the setting and would have preferred a tamer capricious or fickleness for Blanche in order to maintain the sensitive Harry's interest in her.
If humour like a hard centred chocolate is your thing then then Widowers' Houses is for you. It runs at the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond until January 31 and is 2 hours long including an interval.