Review: Widowers’ Houses, Orange Tree
Published in Time Out, 19.12.2014
Rogue landlords. Sub-standard housing. Extortionate rents. A lot has changed since 1892. Or not.
George Bernard Shaw’s piquant debut play tackles London’s housing crisis and, for all its fussiness, packs a stronger political punch than any new work on the subject. It delivers context and incredulity at once: the housing problem is clearly perennial.
‘Widowers’ Houses’ centres on the ideological clash between young, naive leftie Dr Trench (Alex Waldmann) and self-made Tory landlord Sartorius (Patrick Drury), who owns decrepit tenement blocks filled to bursting with London’s poor. The rent, per cubic metre, is more expensive than a luxury housing. Their interests collide: Trench hopes to marry Sartorius’s fiery daughter Blanche (debutant Rebecca Collingwood).
It’s not that black and white, though. Sartorius claims compassionate conservatism: keeping his housing sub-standard means keeping rents affordable. Trench, too, is compromised: his meagre income comes from the mortgage on – yep – the very same tenements. Shaw was an ardent socialist, but he makes himself work for his win here: Sartorius, ultimately, has no faith in people, believing that if they owned the buildings they’d use the floorboards for firewood. They probably would and all: it’s the system, as well as the stairs, that needs fixing.
Designer Simon Daws slams the point home by staging the action on a replica of Charles Booth’s Poverty Map, which shows the impossibly rich and the impossibly poor living shoulder-to-shoulder. Again: plus ça change?
Today’s playwright would dispatch Shaw’s plot in half the time and half the talk, but director Paul Miller toys with the slight absurdity of such mannered drama. Waldmann both sends up and sympathises with the idealistic Trench, while Drury is as velvety as his smoking jacket. Collingwood’s Blanche throws a superb strop and there’s lovely support from Simon Gregor’s cockney wideboy Lickcheese.
There’s unquestionably a better drama on the current housing crisis to be written – but this gutsy Victoriana will emphatically do for now.
Photograph: Richard Hubert-Smith