Bridewell Theatre, Blackfriars, London, 17/09/2019.
Written back in 1894 Arms And The Man was one of George Bernard Shaw’s first successes, a romantic comedy set during a war in Bulgaria where one evening Captain Bluntschli (Karel Ryckeboer), a fleeing soldier from the Serbian army, ends up hiding in the bedroom of Raina Petkoff (Sophie Platts-Martin), a wealthy young lady. At first she’s horrified by his presence but soon begins falling for the rather suave individual, even if he initially holds her hostage at gun point, and quickly persuades her mother Catherine (Alison Du Cane) that he should stay until he’s safe to leave the next morning.
Shortly afterwards the war ends and Raiana’s father Paul (Paul Caira) and her beloved fiancee Sergius Saranoff (Benjamin Dobson) both return home, and given Sergius’s heroic deeds it looks like their romance is more passionate than ever. But then Captain Bluntschli re-enters their lives and complicates matters, especially as Raina and her mother have to hide from both her father and Sergius that they helped save him from certain death that night. To make things even more complex Sergius soon reveals himself to be something of a cad as he attempts to seduce Raina’s maid Louka (Madeleine Todd), who herself is engaged to the Petkoff’s manservant Nicola (Kareem Nasif).
A mixture of comedy of manners and farce, it’s a delightful affair, deceptively frothy and frivolous on the surface but it actually has a lot to say, predominately on the nature of war and what it means to be a soldier, but also when it comes to relationships between the sexes and how men and women should act. Sergius certainly questions himself the most when it comes to the latter, well aware of all his faults, but due to his bluster and bravado puts himself in situations which could easily lead to death.
Bernard Shaw also has a sharp eye when exploring femininity, and smartly and amusingly sends up Raina’s initial pomposity, while also being well aware of the wisdom of the females in the play and how they cleverly manipulate the men in their lives. Most of whom are somewhat flawed, bar Captain Bluntschli, who actually hails from Switzerland rather than Serbia and is a soldier for hire, and reflecting the country he comes from is well aware of the complexities of love, life and war.
It’s a production which impresses throughout, with all of the female cast members turning in superb performances, they might not always be sympathetic but they capture the nuances of Shaw’s writing perfectly. The majority of the men are on top form too, with Ryckeboer especially deserving acclaim, given how much all of the characters adore Bluntschli by the end finding someone with such enormous charisma must have been difficult but Ryckeboer is superb in the role.
Produced by the technically amateur Sedos theatre company this is another production from them which deserves a transfer to the West End. It’s a smart, witty and thoughtful play, beautifully acted and staged. Though it might not be on the cutting edge of modern theatre it’s filled with a great deal of intelligent commentary on an impressive amount of themes, and Bernard Shaw’s remarkable text makes sure it’s never less than witty and absorbing from beginning to end.