Review – Major Barbara, National Theatre

Thursday 28 February 2008

“Alcohol is a very necessary article. It heals the sick… It assists the doctor – that is perhaps a less questionable way of putting it. It makes life bearable to millions of people who could not endure their existence if they were quite sober. It enables Parliament to do things at eleven at night that no sane person would do at eleven in the morning.”

Who would have thought that of all the playwrights in all the world the Whingers would finally discover that their kindred spirit was George Bernard Shaw?

Having been taken completely taken by surprise at the excellence of Saint Joan in the same space last year, it seemed unlikely that lightning (or perhaps an earthquake) could possibly strike twice.

But, yes apparently it can. Andrew had dragged a reluctant Phil along kicking and screaming to see Major Barbara by telling him it was probably something to do with Barbra Streisand (the only major Barbara Phil knows), possibly Barbra’s stage adaptation of the classic Goldie Hawn film Private Benjamin.

Anyway, the subterfuge worked and turned out to be a double triumph for Andrew because – as may have been mentioned before – Phil is famously immune to the charms of Simon Russell Beale who plays the eponymous Barbara’s arms magnate father, Undershaft.

But – not unlike Saint Joan and the Salvation Army’s Major Barbara Undershaft – Phil has seen the light.

It first came upon him at the National’s production of The Alchemist and – lo – the light did revisit him during Major Babs, saving his theatrical soul and converting him into a fully-fledged disciple of one of the great actors of “our” generation.

His conversion was effected even without even so much as one rattle of a tambourine (although there were plenty of those – director Mr Hytner does like his scene changes to be covered by live music).

So, yes, this was the first preview of Major Barbara at the National Theatre and the Whingers were quite prepared for the whole thing to be slightly unready, this seemingly being an acceptable state of affairs in West End previews these days. But apart from being very marginally under-paced at times, the only fly in the ointment the Whingers could lay their hands on was John Heffernan‘s errant shirt front which had a life of its own in the opening scene.

And that’s all we could find to pick on.

It even has proper sets including an Edwardian study for the opening scene in which the wonderful Claire Higgins (“Biddy”/ Lady Britomart) was predictably marvellous, imperious and controlling but with enough warmth to make her lovable. There even seem to be touches of Dame Judi’s hauteur coming through in her performance. Surely Higgins must be a Dame in waiting.

Anyway, the play is set in motion by Lady Britomart’s need to secure more money from her children’s estranged father, Lord Undershaft (SRB). One of her daughters Barbara (Hayley Atwell) is dedicating her life to saving the souls of the poor at a Salvation Army mission; her other Sarah (Jessica Gunning) is marrying money, but not yet. Son Stephen (Heffernan) just seems hopeless.

As a result of Undershaft re-entering their lives, he offers to donate money to the Salvation Army leaving Major Babs with a moral dilemma given that the money is “dirty” – the profits of armaments manufacture. It all sounds like Shaw should have called his play Arms and the Man but unfortunately he’d wasted that on an earlier effort. How he must have kicked himself.

Cleverly, the moral of the play turns out not to be about the arms trade and along the way Shaw has some wonderful and witty goes at almost everyone: lawyers, actors, journalists and politicians all get a taste of Shaw’s waspish tongue. With the last two represented by Anthony Howard and Michael Heseltine’s in last night’s audience, an extra frisson was added. If Shaw had had the foresight to foresee blogging (and it’s remarkable that he didn’t), he’d surely have had a pop at the Whingers too.

But it seems that little else has changed since 1905:

BARBARA. Who is Lord Saxmundham? I never heard of him.

UNDERSHAFT. A new creation, my dear. You have heard of Sir Horace Bodger?

BARBARA. Bodger! Do you mean the distiller? Bodger’s whisky!

UNDERSHAFT. That is the man. He is one of the greatest of our public benefactors. He restored the cathedral at Hakington. They made him a baronet for that. He gave half a million to the funds of his party: they made him a baron for that.

Major Babs played straight to the Whingers, resisting all the chat about temperance. Out of deference to the play’s theme the Whingers purchased wine at the interval and brought it in for the second half. It was a quite admirable marketing ploy although unfortunately there was no Bodger’s whisky available for neither love nor money which showed something of a lack of imagination on the part of the National Theatre.

Andrew entered into the spirit by refusing to buy a round on the grounds that his money was dirty and he didn’t wish to cause offence.

Other highlights included mention of one “Todger Fairmile of Balls Pond. Him that won 20 pounds off the Japanese wrastler at the music hall by standin out 17 minutes4 seconds agen him”. Perhaps this was Shaw satirising porn star names.
Major Babs is (according to the copious and rather good programme notes) an attack on poverty rather than the armaments business. And very even handed it is too (except about poverty, obviously). Like Saint Joan it’s remarkably apposite. It’s hard to fathom that a revival with Sybil Thorndike way back in 1929 (which Phil is now mortified he didn’t go and see) re-established the play as “triumphantly topical” having previously been seen as dated.

This being the National, there are some terrific wigs and even if the last 10 minutes or so begin to wane slightly, it’s an astonishing achievement for any play to keep the Whingers on the edge of their seats for 2¾ hours, much less one with so many words and ideas in it and a Salvation Army shelter scene which is just crying out for a chorus of “Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat”.

Tom Pye‘s third act armaments factory set is excellent, although more impressive from further back than row B of the stalls so if you’re near the front, make sure you take a look over your head as you race out to discuss the play’s issues.

Anyway the Whingers are intending to catch as much Shaw as they can from now on and are already booked for Pygmalion at the Old Vic. They think they can cope with Shaw’s most famous play (even though Lerner and Loewe’s wonderful songs have been excised from it) if only to see another stage outing for the very sporting and lovely Una Stubbs.

Yes the Whingers left on quite a high: Andrew had his faith in the idea of theatre as a potentially rewarding pastime restored; Phil was the most excited he’d been in a while but soon forgot all about it when he felt his bed shake in the early hours of the morning (sadly, something which hasn’t happened for a very long time, if ever).

Claire Higgins as Lady Britomart


Not that we wish to reduce anyone to the status of a “footnote” you understand, but a lovely evening was had with Oliver, London Theatre Goer and Paul in London. Thanks all.


11 Responses to “Review – Major Barbara, National Theatre”

  1. Simone Says:

    Thanks guys! I am seeing this tonight and this review got me even more excited. And nice side comment on Barbra Streisand. 🙂

  2. webcowgirl Says:

    Well alright, I’ve picked a data now based on this review. Sorry I couldn’t have gone with you, but, well, SOON!

  3. webcowgirl Says:

    Christ, a DATE. Clearly what I need to pick UP is a cup of tea.

  4. Jmc Says:

    Very glad that the Whingers are in the pro-Shaw camp. This is my favourite of his plays; it’s worth tracking down the 1940s film, which has Robert Morley and Robert Newton in it!

  5. Paul Says:

    Well personally I don’t mind be reduced to a footnote…

    I am more surprised I completely missed John Heffernan’s frisky shirt. I did notice one of Hayley Atwell’s uniform buttons undone… I thought that was rather provocative for a Major…

  6. Simone Says:

    What a fantastic evening! Russell Beale was superb, I am definitely seeing it again.

  7. Tom Davis Says:

    i think i’m going to need converting to shaw, but it seems like it’s going to happen when i see this. claire higgins should certainly b the next theatrical dame. she’s awesome.

  8. bernard Says:

    Went last night. Mr Heffernan’s shirt was definitely still trying to make a break for freedom throughout the first scene. Sat in the front row I was concerned that I might end up with a button in the eye.

    To be fair I wasn’t in as much mortal danger as the man sat next to me who had obviously deserted his wife in the lobby and got a handbag across the back of the head when she was let in between scenes. Much more satisfying than the some of the ‘punches’ being thrown on stage.

  9. sorites Says:

    From the Circle I don’t think the munitions factory looked nearly as dramatic as the Salvation Army Hall. The upstage/downstage lines of the tables seemed to work better in the space of the Olivier than the horizontal lines of the shells. Also the scene change to the Hall worked far more smoothly than the change to the factory.

  10. Blue Frog Says:

    Went to see this last night. I thought you might be interested to know what I discovered in the Gents’ lavatory located near the Aisles 4 & 5 entrance to the Olivier stalls… a Dyson Airblade! Well, there were two of them, actually. Terribly exciting.

  11. […] British Reviews National Theatre’s 2008 production of Major Barbara British Theatre Guide The Guardian The Independent West End Whingers […]

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