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Widowers' Houses review

Philip Hamer thinks modern day money-makers could learn something from George Bernard Shaw's play at the Royal Exchange

Published on April 22nd 2009.

Widowers' Houses review

First performed in 1892 as a response to the exploitation of the poor by London’s slum landlords, Bernard Shaw's theatrical début Widowers’ Houses established him as a promising young playwright and an acute political visionary.

Self-made man Mr Sartorious is a greedy, corrupt landlord with an equally money-fixated daughter, Blanche. When a marriage proposal to Blanche flounders because the idealistic suitor discovers the origins of Sartorious’s fortune, Shaw draws out enough moral contradictions surrounding the allure of money to fill a dozen plays. These culminate in Sartorious’s reminder to his audience that people tend to “have a dreadfully sentimental notion of wealth”.

Roger Lloyd Pack pitches his Sartorious perfectly, never veering into the caricature that might have tempted a lesser actor. He employs the landlord's blend of ruthlessness and shabby, almost sordid behaviour to especially good effect in the scene where Sartorious sacks his rent collector Lickcheese (played splendidly by Ian Bartholomew) for spending too much on repairing the slums.

The scene where Blanche vents inchoate rage on her maid is equally well done. Lucy Briggs-Owen captures with panache this spoilt daughter's indifference to the plight of the Victorian poor. The play might have been better titled Sartorious and His Daughter, such is the symbiosis between Blanche and her father. Financial greed seems to have welded them together.

With eye-catching direction by Greg Hersov, beautiful period costumes, and imaginative stage design, this is an impressive production all round. And though the play’s ending is hurried (the only real sign that this was Shaw’s first) it is also breathtaking, reminding us that he never patronised his audiences, preferring to use his considerable wit to make them think.

If only he was around today to get his playwriting hands on those contemporary arbiters of venal wealth, the bankers.

Widowers' Houses, until 9 May, Royal Exchange Theatre, St Ann's Square, 0161 833 9833, www.royalexchangetheatre.org.uk

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