Major Barbara (Shaw's Corner) ****
(Ayot St Lawrence - Fri 23rd June 2017)
The Man From Aldersgate****
(Harpenden Methodist Church - Sat 24th June 2017)
I have had a heavy weekend of religion, or theatre depending on your point of view. All I know, and I do not know much, is that God figured an awful lot in both of them. Salvationists and Methodists all and, theatre aside, you cannot help but admire the commitment and unwavering belief in both. It all happened by accident. Not the plays, merely my juxtaposing of attendance. George Bernard Shaw’s Major Barbara is a play rich in wit and satire, and a plethora of bloody long speeches, but bares in abundance his thought provoking polemic trademarks. Woolly charitable efforts to feed and clothe the poor are all very well but money and industry do it a damn sight better. Even if that money, as it often does, arises from the sweat of whisky distilleries and armament manufacturers. Pass the smelling salts someone, or at least an opposing political tract. It is an absorbing argument, amplified here by cynical businessman Andrew Undershaft and his feisty Salvationist daughter Barbara. If I did not totally buy in to the underlying family dramatic plot, only foundlings inherit this worthy gunpowder business, I was bowled over by the central performances in Michael Friend’s production for the National Trust Shaw Corner Festival. Chris Myles was beautifully clear and commanding as Andrew Undershaft, this was an outdoor production on a windy evening, and invested all of his speeches with delightful variation of tone and he was well matched, or should I say sparred, by Maryann O’Brien as the zealously religious daughter Barbara. Whether in her upper class day clothes or her austere Salvationist’s uniform you were always acutely conscious of a woman rich in misguided warmth and commitment. Good as these two actors were, they did have the two meatiest parts and expertly wolfed them down, they were given splendid support by William Keetch as the ineffectual son Stephen, Derek Murphy as the etonian beau Charles Lomax, full of engaging ‘don’t yer knows’, and. most notably, Laura Fitzpatrick as beleaguered upper class mother Lady Britomart. Miss Fitzpatrick had that silken serenity of a woman always destined to be obeyed, or so she thought, and a honeyed voice which conveyed it exquisitely. So all in all an excellent evening of theatre, albeit a typical Shaw long one, only slightly marred by scene placing against the trees and wind in Act One. Not their fault but most of the later scenes were, mercifully, fully in front of the house. A large cast and I can’t single them all out but Molly Waters was an impressive young Salvationist and Paul Thomas the engaging silly ass Adolphus Cusins. Not a totally believable character, not his fault, but played with a great sense of Charles Hawtrey fun. My one main caveat, other than occasionally poor placing of actors, was Paul McLaughlin’s portrayal of the rather nasty Bill Walker. A strong performance but a little too strong for my taste. But then in the famous film Robert Newton took on the part. And he was no fading wallflower.
B J Johnston was equally no fading wallflower in his one man portrayal of John Wesley at Harpenden Methodist Church the following night. This was his five hundredth performance of The Man From Aldersgate and if the other four hundred and ninety nine were given as much rich drama and commitment as this audience then it has been a long treat for many. Mr Johnston is a Methodist preacher but he is also a skilled actor to his fingertips. Over an hour and a half he creates a rich picture of the life of the man who founded the Methodist movement in the eighteenth century. We learn about his relationship with his devout mother, his rescue from a fire as a child, his finding of his true religious self, his lack of interest in money, his confrontation with a highwayman, and his battles with the establishment. All writ large in the engaging performance of an actor totally immersed in his role. The greatest compliment I can pay Mr Johnston is that at times I actually thought I was watching and listening to John Wesley and that his horseman was really outside getting water from the wrong part of the stream. Engaging the audience can be risky and dangerous but, generally, he pulled it off. Folks of a religious bent will have been enthralled by Mr Johnston’s mixture of theatre and religion. But even cynical old farts like me, there purely for the biographical and theatrical bent, will have left uplifted by both the message and the performance. Well worth catching when number five hundred and one comes along.