Stars explained: * A production of no real merit with failings in all areas. ** A production showing evidence of not enough time or effort, or even talent, and which never breathes any real life into the piece – or a show lumbered with a terrible script. *** A good enjoyable show which might have some small flaws but has largely achieved what it set out to do.**** An excellent show which shows a great deal of work and stage craft with no noticeable or major flaws.***** A four star show which has found that extra bit of magic which lifts theatre to another plane.
Half stars fall between the ratings

the man

The Man: Andrew Tyrer as Captain Bluntschli in rehearsal

Arms and the Man

The Bearpit Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon


George Bernard Shaw was into his late thirties before he began writing plays. He was already known as a journalist, commentator and of course, famously, critic. His first attempt was disdained by the audience, seen as rather a damp squib. But back he came, just a year later (1894) with Arms and the Man, and then The Devil’s Disciple. His name as a playwright was firmly established.

Second Thoughts describes itself as a Community Theatre Group based in Stratford-upon Avon. Well, if this is the quality of Community groups, long may they thrive.

For Amanda Laidler’s cheerful, gratifying, characterful, enterprising production of Arms and the Man came perilously close to the standards of the official amateur ensemble in Stratford, the splendid, much admired Bearpit Theatre company, who hosted the Shaw play in their ample – and immensely welcoming theatre.

Everything worked like clockwork. The Bearpit is currently, perhaps always, arranged with the audience on all four sides – a bit like the RSC’s The Other Place, just down the road.

Not much of a set was needed – the acting saw to that – although a curtain (or arras!) to one side, served as the balcony the escapee climbs up near the start, and a place for the girl of the house to hide him while he is still ‘the enemy.’

Arms and the Man is packed with delightful, perceptive lines, which admirably define the seven main characters: the girl, her solicitous but incisive mother, the ho-ho, bluff military father, the girl’s stiff, pretty pompous purported fiancé, two servants, and of course the escapee, round whom – most amusingly, foe and then friend - the whole story is centred.      

Arms? Military? The play is set in the immediate aftermath of the 1885 two-week (!) long Bulgarian-Serbian War (one of many? Each was after the other’s territory): initially this is the day after the decisive Battle of Slivnitsa. (‘Slivnitza’, according to Shaw, but Bulgarian has -ts-, not -tz), actually commanded by King Alexander himself.

raina and the major

Vanessa Gravestock as Raina and Siôn Grace as Major Sergius Saranoff - an ideal relationship that may not last

By Act 2, peace has been signed (three months later), so the acrobatic Swiss mercenary, Captain Bluntschli, fighting on the Austrian-backed Serbian side (ironic, given 1914) needn’t worry latterly. But in Act I Bulgarian trigger-happy gendarmes are still marauding. Saving his skin is what he, as with all mercenaries, is about, hence his intrusion into the girl, Raina’s (experts tell me RIghna, not RaIna, though most of us opt for the latter) bedroom.

Andrew Tyrer made a very good stab at Bluntschli. Towering over the smaller Raina, he rendered them an intriguing pair. The wit might have been a little sharper, yet there was plenty there. His description to the girl of the officer who charged the Serbians ‘like Don Quixote charging at windmills’ – incurring her reproof, that that Bulgarian officer was the man to whom she was betrothed to be married - drew an enjoyable laugh (though it has to be said, this audience was extraordinarily, even regrettably, reticent about laughing). ‘Those chocolate creams’ were absolutely lovely’ was another hoot. ‘The gun is not even loaded’. ’What use is a cartridge in battle? The young carry pistols and cartridges; the old ones carry grub.’

But there’s even more serious stuff: ‘Capture is death, death is sleep’ before (while Raina’s out) he actually begins to fall asleep (and his ‘sleepy’ soliloquy was immaculate). I thought Tyrer did all those serious bits rather well, not least when he rebuts Saranoff: ‘I’m a professional. You are an amateur’. And by the time Catherine (mother) is introducing him as ‘one of our new Serbian friends’, and when he sits down with map to sort out his late enemies’ difficulties in shifting and provisioning troops, he is great fun.


Georgina Monk as the insolent Louka and Andy Watts as the deferential Nicola

Talking of Catherine, Gill Hines was I thought the most professional of the cast. Indeed every time she spoke, or attended to something, or made intelligent judgements, she seemed absolutely a perfect piece of casting. Warm, caring deeply for her daughter, yet prepared to go against norms and conceal where necessary. I directed a school production in which Catherine was played, quite brilliantly, and in a marvellous voice, by an incredibly inventive boy. But I think it would be hard, on any stage, to find an actress who excelled as Hines did.

‘How dare he? Oh, I forgot we are at peace now’. ‘Captain Bluntschli, I am very glad to see you, but you must leave this house at once.’ ’The poor dear? Raina!’ The wickedly deceptive, tongue-in-cheek ‘If such people exist, we should be spared the knowledge of them’ Or that other hilarious evasion about the spoiling of Raina’s cake. ‘Oh, my usual sore throats’. Not even a titter from an unduly respectful audience. Gill Hines captured this beautifully written part perfectly, and was a treat – deserved great admiration – every time she was on stage.

Vanessa Gravestock yielded a pretty faultless Raina. Raina is a joyous contrast between the determinedly superior (‘People of our position’) and, as it is often said, the Romantic. Insulted to be thought 17 when in fact ‘a woman of 23, she falls for her intruder, astonishingly, despite being promised to another. A definite breach of etiquette. Gravestock proved a rich source of different faces, hence quite subtle moods. ‘Oh, I know Sergius is your pet.’ ‘Mistress Raina is incapable of telling an untruth’, opines the servant. Hmm. And she: ‘You’re the first person I’ve ever met who didn’t take me seriously.’ The upper class in her might be offended; but the real person likes it.

the major

Tim Rastrick as Major Paul Petkoff

I loved Tim Rastrick’s amiable paterfamilias, Major Petkoff. Why he’s still a Major, the same as Saranoff, always bewilders me. Surely a Brigadier, or at least, Colonel? Unless we are to assume (it’s possible) that he’s so incompetent (‘unambitious’?) he’s not been promoted further. This is a bumper, fun role, full of bluster but also generosity and kindness.  ‘We have a library’ is his catchphrase, imitated by both Raina and Catherine. ‘Sergius has 20 horses’ before Bluntschli, who has just inherited a large array of hotels, retorts ‘I have 200.’ ‘Are you the Emperor of Switzerland?’ puts in Petkoff. I suppose he’s gullible – and Rastrick captures this delightful, cleverly crafted incredulity matched by the not-quite-henpecked (‘Quite right, my dear, quite right’). We know who wears the trousers. Petkoff in this production was huge fun, as he needs to be. A beautifully captured character, whose faces and stances made me rock with laughter.

But the star moment is when he gets Sergius to tell the story of a Serbian officer climbing in through a lady’s bedroom, which some third party had passed on to them; and Catherine being dubbed ‘the old lady’. It’s a delicious piece of dramatic irony by Shaw, and every bit of it was relished by the two Bulgarian officers, while of course resented by the two affected ladies. 

If Siôn Grace didn’t quite catch the pomposity of (Major) Sergius Saranoff, he did in fact create a more sympathetic character than usual. Hence that Sebastopol-like cavalry charge seems a more legitimate case of officer judgement.  He has been promoted, probably, by sheer bombast, but here he shows caution and some intelligence. He will lose the girl, but he has dignity and, mapping out the withdrawal with Bluntschli, some needed assurance. ‘I never apologise’ needs to be outrageously grandiose, magniloquent. Unfortunately, not here. A bit straightforward for Shaw’s intentions, yet an interesting interpretation in its way.

The subplot involved the two servants, the girl Louka and the put-upon male factotum, Nicola (my informant again tells me in Bulgarian it’s NicOla, not NIcola). Likewise (as I know too), the currency is Layva, not Leeva. But maybe we traditionally employ English adaptations. Andy Watts gets Nicola utterly right. A bit older, a sort of character out of Chekhov, deferential and subservient (which makes Louka despise him: ‘You have the soul of a servant, Nicola’. ‘Soul’ is a big word. Whereas his advice is ‘You need to know your place’. A meticulously loyal retainer, a scrupulous preserver of family secrets. (Actually Louka is too, reluctantly, so far as we are told.)

If Nicola knows his place, Louka is the very opposite. She resents her lowly position, and intends to break out of it. She is where Shaw’s Socialism, his support of equality and women’s freedom, comes to the fore. Georgina Monk signals Louka’s viewpoint even before it emerges, in her flouncy walk, her insolent faces, her unashamedly spy-like knowledge of Raina’s situation or predicament (‘She’s a liar, and her fine airs are a cheat, and I’m worth six of her.’) Maybe not six, but Louka is in fact, for all her spite, a character we can sympathise with. She hopes to be socially upward: ‘I’ve a right to call her Raina. She calls me Louka.’ And she certainly hits out: ‘I do defy her. I will defy her. What do I care for her?’ This is outright rebellion, brute class war. But you can’t help feeling Shaw is actually on her side.  

The one big moan is the music. Second Thoughts threw away the chance to use some of the very characterful Bulgarian music. A bit of nothing, a sliver of English  -  supposedly for good measure. This was bad news, and a waste. There, I’ve got it off my chest.

But Amanda Laidler’s production was definitely an out and out success. Characters finely depicted, the series of ironic situations nicely presented, the whole enterprise pretty much as Shaw would have applauded. I enjoyed it immensely.

Roderic Dunnett


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