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Talented cast do justice to a Bernard Shaw classic

Review by David Munro

ARMS and the Man is one the pleasantest plays of George Bernard Shaw's Plays Pleasant.

Dealing with the love affair between a romantic girl and an enemy of her country, it gives meaty parts to not only the protagonists, Raina and Bluntschli, played in this production by Rachel Ferjani and Barnaby Kay; but also to her fiancé, the blustering Sergius (Sam Callis), her father, Petkoff, and mother, Catherine (Duncan Preston and Gwen Taylor), and the family's maid, Luaka (Mali Harries).

I had thought, until I saw this production, that the Olivier/Richardson 1944 Old Vic performances were unsurpassable.

And so they are, but my memories of that production were unsettled by the performances of Sam Callis and Barnaby Kay, both of whom show signs of being able to assume the mantles of their notable predecessors.

Barnaby Kay gave Bluntschli more charm, and consequently more believability, than Richardson did.

His recounting of his assets and the reasons why he should be accepted as Raina's suitor, in the last act, was a masterpiece of comic timing.

Similarly, Sam Callis gave Sergius an underlying sense of insecurity to his braggadocio, which was charming and made his final acceptance of Luaka as his lover believable.

Both Gwen Taylor and Duncan Preston are masters of their craft and their personifications of the stuffy, self-opinionated parents were a delight.

Gwen Taylor's twitch of her bustle, when she realises that her daughter has fallen for the enemy, was a sight I shall long remember and relish.

Sadly, though, Raina, which is a pivotal part, proved too much for Rachel Ferjani, whose performance was more appropriate to Daisy Pulls It Off than G.B.S.

Her squeaking and posturing were embarrassing and one could not really accept that Barnaby Kay's Bluntschli would have given her a second glance after she had successfully succeeded in concealing him from his pursuers, which forms the rationale for the play.

One felt that she and Mali Harries should have swapped parts as Ms Harries gave an assured and strong performance in what is a very subsidiary role.

However, these cavils aside, this is a very charming and delightful production and one which, as I have indicated, goes a long way to obliterate the memories of the past.

This, I feel, must be attributed to Timothy Sheader's assured and deft direction.

Whilst I found certain longeurs in the first act, which I am afraid was due to the posturing of Raina, the second act, in the sure hands of Messrs Preston, Kay and Callis, aided and abetted by Mesdames Taylor and Harries, rattled along at a brisk and extremely amusing pace.

While this is minor Shaw, it proves in this revival that when it is well played, he is still a playwright to be reckoned with. I wish this production well and hope that it will ultimately end up in the West End, where it belongs.

Arms and the Man by George Bernard Shaw, Directed by Timothy Sheader, Designer Robert Jones, Lighting Howard Harrison, Sound Jason Barnes, Music Corin Buckeridge. WITH: Sam Callis, Duncan Preston, Rachel Ferjani, Fred Ridgeway, Mali Harries, Gwen Taylor, Barnaby Kay, Matt Zarb, Derek Bell, Anita Booth, Chloe Billington. Produced by The Touring Partnership at Richmond Theatre, The Little Green, Richmond, Surrey. Tickets 020 8940 0088.

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