Arms and the Man orange tree theatre review

Review: Arms and the Man, Orange Tree Theatre

Review: Arms and the Man, Orange Tree Theatre

Effortlessly funny, sadly relevant and gloriously thought-provoking, it’s a Christmas show you won’t forget.  


There is but a handful of plays of the late Victorian period that have aged as well as Shaw’s Arms and The Man. And it is for a sad reason – apparently, it is necessary to continually remind audiences that war is no romantic business.  

Serbo-Bulgarian War of 1885. A Swiss soldier named Bluntschli breaks into a bedroom of a “gracious young lady”, Raina. He is a mercenary who joined the Serbian army and is now running for his life after the lost battle of Slivnitsa. She is a daughter of Bulgarian nobility whose fiance, Sergius, has just successfully led the cavalry charge to win the said battle of Slivnitsa. She is filled with romantic ideas about the war and Sergius. He is a seasoned soldier as exhausted trying to save his life, as he is cynical. Against all odds, Raina decides to shelter Bluntschli and safely send him home in her father’s coat. Sometime later, he comes back to return the coat and see her again – on the same day as Sergius and Raina’s father arrive home… 

As the final outing for the theatre’s artistic director of many years, Paul Miller, the show doesn’t disappoint. Not only is it the sixth Shaw he’s done for the past eight years but possibly – the most successful. Its greatest strength is the lack of any pretension. The set is wonderfully period-appropriate and almost nostalgic, there are grand costumes galore and clearly much thought was put into unravelling each character act by act, scene by scene, minute by minute. Sergius, behind the pretence of a Pushkin soldier, hides the duplicity of a brute and a coward – but also a man ready to defy his own social status for a woman he loves. Raina is far cleverer than even she gives herself credit for – coddled in the safe world of her pretty albeit somewhat tacky bedroom bought with her parents’ “old” money, she wants to believe in the romantic ideals moreso than she actually does – even in the very first scene, she admits to her mother that she had doubted Sergius. Her interactions with Bluntschli do not challenge her illusions inasmuch as they embolden her to face what she’s always known. Bluntschli himself yearns for the romantic aspects of life and tries his best to hide any signs of vulnerability that Raina seems to exude in him. Servants, Louka and Nicola, balance each other out when their incompatible ambitions come to the surface making Nicola exhibit gallantry and boldness alien to the men of the upper classes. Sticking to their guns – however different it is for both of them – pays off, and they both receive more than they yearned for.  

There is a lot of somewhat unexpected physical comedy coming primarily from Sergius – who does splits (in a uniform!), stretches and poses to present himself with all the exaltation of a romantic hero. Raina also engages in that and this is, it seems, the only connecting point between these two – once the posing is dropped, not much remains. Both are great casting choices – Alex Bhatt makes Sergius sympathetic and even though engaged in plenty of slapstick, he still manages to convey his complex nature. Rebecca Collingwood dances through the stage as the wide-eyed Raina with wit and energy that add more depth to her character than less comedic interpretations often do. Alex Waldmann knocks it out of the park as Bluntschli – clever yet cynical, adoring yet disillusioned, he brings sharpness and humour that makes him instantly likeable. He and Collingwood have remarkable chemistry (although he threatens to kill her at the beginning of the play) which inspires the audience to actively want them to end up together. Kemi Awoderu is a smart Louka who clearly knows what she wants and won’t give up until she gets it. Miranda Foster and Jonathan Tafler as Raina’s parents bounce off each other as a funny amalgam of his blind mania and her jovial restlessness.  

All in all, it’s one blast of a show. Effortlessly funny, sadly relevant and gloriously thought-provoking, it’s a Christmas show you won’t forget.  

Orange Tree Theatre, until 14 January

Image: Alex Waldmann and Rebecca Collingwood in Arms and the Man – photo by Ellie Kurttz