Arts: Theatre: A suitable case for treatment

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The Independent Culture
FROM THE incisive opening chords of Julian Philips's introductory music, the Almeida's energetic revival of The Doctor's Dilemma shows it means business. A standard production would open with the leisurely rise of the curtain upon the comfortably appointed consulting room of physician Sir Colenso Ridgeon, but this theatre has no curtain. More to the point, Christopher Oram's austere set presents double doors bearing down upon a massive table and enough chairs for the cast and no more. This production favours hard-won argument over soft furnishings.

Like many of Shaw's plays, The Doctor's Dilemma is neglected. Even the reviews of the original 1912 production did not consider it to be his best work, but director Michael Grandage makes a strong case for it. The opening scene is littered with doctors, from the qualified (Bernard Horsfall is witty and touching as the eminence gris) to the quacks (Martin Jarvis is a splendidly preening surgeon who outlandishly ascribes every known condition to the hitherto unknown "nuciform sac" which he will swiftly remove for the right fee). Wisely, Grandage peppers the dangerously verbose opening debate with comedy and bowls along at a lick so that the crux of the play arrives with the pace up and running.

The action pivots around Louis Dubedat (the suitably reptilian James Callis), a gifted young artist who is dying of tuberculosis and whose fate rests in the hands of Ridgeon, newly knighted ostensibly for his research into the disease. Ridgeon, however, is torn. His dilemma appears to that given limited resources, should he save the genius or his colleague, the hardworking and penniless physician to the poor, Blenkinsop (baleful Robert Demeger)?

Matters are further complicated and dramatically strengthened by the fact that Dubedat proves to be morally dubious, to say the least. Puffed- up Bloomfield Bonnington (Tony Britton) is horrified by Dubedat's lack of honour. "Let him take his case to the Brompton Hospital," he pontificates. "They won't cure him but at least they'll teach him some manners." Furthermore, Ridgeon has grown infatuated with Dubedat's wife Jennifer, who is blind to her husband's true character.

Shaw's satirical spin on morality (and not just of the medical profession) sounds like the central subject. However, Ridgeon's ultimately fatal decision is clouded with self-interest and the fall-out from that turns out to provide the real meat. Grandage refuses to take sides with the characters and further energises things by encouraging actors of intensity and poise to make flesh what could, in lesser hands, prove tiresome. This is particularly true of Victoria Hamilton as Jennifer. She convinces you of the depths of her passion which inspires Ridgeon's dangerous obsession and drives the play to their climactic confrontation.

Over the course of the evening, Ian McDiarmid's impressive Ridgeon visibly pales into a shadow of his former self. He is eaten away by his dishonesty which shrouds a bitter truth. It is a tribute to a fine production of an intriguing play that Shaw's final compromise should seem so resolute.

To 27 June at the Almeida Theatre, London N1 (0171-359 4404) and touring to 6 Aug