Candida, Upstairs at the Gatehouse, London
Starring: Judi Bowker, Harry Meacher
**** (out of five)
IN A parsonage on the fringes of London in the late nineteenth century, where the Christian socialist Rev. James Morell is completely absorbed by his work.
Vigorous and popular, his talent for preaching leads him to speak in front of anarchist communists, agnostics, and the Land Restoration Society amongst many others.
At his home in Hackney he discusses his upcoming lectures with his typist Miss Garnet (also referred to as Prossy) as he awaits the return of his wife Candida from her trip to London.
Before she arrives, her father Burgess comes to the parsonage and the two men have an intellectual sparring match over fair wages for workers but are interrupted by Candida’s return. She has with her Eugene Marchbanks, a young poet and the nephew of an Earl.
It is not long before Marchbanks expresses his disdain for all the Reverend’s words and speeches, informing him that he is in love with Candida and that she will realise she deserves better than her husband’s complacency.
Their exchange ends with the Reverend physically threatening Marchbanks. Over the rest of the course of the play’s three acts, Marchbanks attempts to win Candida’s affections.
Ending up alone in the parsonage with her when the Reverend ‘shows his bravery’ by leaving the two of them to go and perform a sermon, he reads her poetry and rests his head in her lap. When the two are interrupted by Rev. Morell they eventually decide Candida must choose between them.
After some deliberation, Candida decides she is to be with the weaker of the two men, who she reveals to be her husband, the Reverend.
The setting for this production of Shaw’s comedy Candida could not be better.
The warm intimacy of the Gatehouse lends itself to the atmosphere of Morell’s parsonage and the set design made excellent use of the space, feeling just ‘constructed’ enough to give the self-referential lines of Shaw’s such as Candida’s ‘It’s as good as a play for them’ room to breathe.
The rich Victorian setting also helped the political content of the play retain some of its force, allowing it to simultaneously remain in Shaw’s time and resonate with a modern audience, recalling the remark of Shaw’s ‘Hegel was right when he said that we learn from history that man can never learn anything from history’.
The acting improved over the course of the play, particularly Meacher’s Morell whose mannerisms initially did not suit the figure of the Reverend at all, lacking a sense of physicality that ultimately detracted from the play between the comedic and the serious in his dialogue.
In his quieter moments however, when he was silent with rage or resignation, Meacher’s performance shone and leant a real depth to Morell that provided some of the finest instants of the evening.
Judi Bowker and Sebastian Cornelius, as Candida and Marchbanks respectively, were the most consistent, lending the tryst the balance it required.
Bowker’s delivery had an odd timbre that left her voice both powerful and faded, which sometimes came across as overly affected but mostly brought Candida very much to life.
All in all the evening was a success despite one or two minor problems here and there which prevented the performance from quite coming together as smoothly as it should.
The interaction between the leads was what really helped carry things off and made Candida, unlike Morell and ultimately Marchbanks, composed of much more than words.
Candida runs until 19th April