Arms and the Man

Brendan Deeds takes in Bernard Shaw's play on what would be his 150th birthday

19th century Bulgaria. The beautiful Raina clutches a photograph of her fiancé, a dashing military hero, as she gazes wistfully out of her bedroom window.

Suddenly there are gunshots, and Raina extinguishes the candles just as a weary enemy soldier scales her balcony and enters her bedroom. Captain Bluntschli desires only some rest. And maybe some chocolate.

Director Richard CroxfordSo begins the Lyric Theatre’s production of George Bernard Shaw’s Arms and the Man, a comic confection - with a dark centre.

Within Shaw’s hilarious farce lies a sharp satire on the attraction and danger of ideals, whether in the sphere of love or war. 150 years after the playwright was born this is still an entertaining and engaging play.

Raina (Karen Hassan) is petulant, contrary and given to histrionics. It’s understandable why the young actress has modelled Raina on Nikki from Big Brother- the drama queen who had high-pitched tantrums every two minutes on the reality show.

This is a mistake. Some people found Nikki entertaining... for a while. But tens of thousands reached for the phone to kick her out, twice.

Shaw refers to Raina’s voice as ‘frilly’. Raina describes her voice as ‘thrilling’ but her yelps, screams and rants are more shrill than frill. The audience giggled twice then wondered if there was a phone number to call...

Hassan’s performance lacks depth and in the final act we don't get a sense of the sea change in Raina after she has been exposed to the harsh realities of love and war. As a result, the message of the play is weakened.

George Bernard Shaw's 'Arms and the Man'However, the rest of the cast admirably compensate. Frankie McCafferty, wonderful as Clov in Prime Cut’s Endgame, again proves himself an accomplished comic actor. His Major Petkoff steals every scene he’s in. Libby Smith’s superb performance as the snobbish Catherine Petkoff is a very close second.

Arms and the Man is a difficult play to direct. Focus too much on the farce and you bury the witty epithets and social commentary. Focus too much on the satire and wit and you dampen the comedy.

Richard Croxford’s production is at its best when it is dealing with the serious themes of the play but there is a jarring change of pace as the whimsy ends and the meatier drama begins.

In the third act, the servant Louka comes to the fore. Nikki Doherty’s portrayal of the ambitious servant bristles with the fiery passion of one who rages against the class system that denies her a greater role in society and the love of the man above her station.

Her intense performance ensures Louka smoulders in your memory long after the play is finished.

Glen Wallace provides an enjoyable comic performance as the arrogant Major Sergius Saranoff. Content to play the ‘hero’ as merely a supercilious clown and a parody of machismo, Wallace misses the target when delivering some of Shaw's best lines.

His performance, which won many whoops of laughter from the women in the Lyric’s audience, is never far from Blackadder’s Captain Flashheart.

The Lyric theatre's Arms and the Man is uneven, but nonetheless entertaining. There are many laughs to be had but, if the farce were downplayed, it may be a more powerful tribute to one of theatre’s truly great playwrights.