A life like a grand opera?

Arms And The Man | The Orange Tree, Richmond, London
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The Independent Culture

The sound of a Verdi trio soars over the heroine's moonlit Balkan bedroom at the start of Sam Walters's very enjoyable in-the-round revival of Arms and the Man at the Orange Tree. It's a nice touch, because this is a young lady who would dearly like to believe that life can aspire to the heroics of grand opera. Leah Muller's Raina lounges on her bed, arms floating to the luxury of this music in her head, for all the world like Orsino in the opening moments of Twelfth Night.

The sound of a Verdi trio soars over the heroine's moonlit Balkan bedroom at the start of Sam Walters's very enjoyable in-the-round revival of Arms and the Man at the Orange Tree. It's a nice touch, because this is a young lady who would dearly like to believe that life can aspire to the heroics of grand opera. Leah Muller's Raina lounges on her bed, arms floating to the luxury of this music in her head, for all the world like Orsino in the opening moments of Twelfth Night.

At first it looks as if her romantic longings are about to be fulfilled. Her mother bustles in with the news that Raina's fiancé, Sergius, is the man of the hour, the dashing major who led the cavalry charge that has secured the Bulgarians' victory against the Serbs. But then a rude dose of comic realism is administered to this willed Ruritanian fantasy in the shape of Bluntschli, a Swiss mercenary, now on the run, who clambers over her balcony seeking refuge.

With his wonderfully low-key subversiveness and amused, incredulous eyes, Howard Saddler captures to perfection the blend of starving desperation and deflationary detachment in Bluntschli. Alerted to the photograph of Sergius, he can't help but break into a wild cackle. The major's exemplary spurt was mostly the result of a bolting horse and would have led his men to certain death if the enemy had not been sent the wrong ammunition. Ms Muller beautifully conveys the way that Raina is both flouncily outraged and highly intrigued as Bluntschli treats her to a brisk lecture on the cock-up theory of war and the common soldier's self-preserving pragmatism. You see from the wittily relieved flickers in the actress's expression that Raina's problem is not that she lies to herself (she has always wondered whether it was only their joint taste for Byron and Pushkin that gave herself and Sergius such elevated expectations) but that she can't bring her public behaviour into line with her private insights.

Alison Skilbeck is deliciously funny as her mother, struggling to prevent her gracious social smile from wilting when Bluntschli's post-war visit (to return a borrowed coat) threatens to reveal to the men of the family that a fleeing adversary was once harboured in their house. But then, there's freshness and strong comic personality throughout Walters's integrated, colour-blind cast. Philip York is hilariously stertorous and slow-off-the-mark as the bemused military patriarch and Susan Salmon is a magnetic mix of cool, sexy calculation and angry principle as the insubordinate maid Louka, who uses her inside knowledge to ensnare Ben Warwick's moustachioed, attitude-striking, yet appealingly self-doubting Sergius.

Only one role comes across as misconceived. Tim Weekes overdoes the apparent pathos of Nicola, the household servant who keeps taking the rap during the cover-up and loses Louka to a "superior". This misses the point, though, that Nicola's pragmatism makes Bluntschli look positively starry-eyed. Instead of bewailing his loss, this hard-headed operator tots up that he will make more out of Louka commercially by having her as a grand customer in the shop he intends to open than he would ever have gained from her as his wife. For the most part, though, this is an entertaining and characteristically sharp start to the Orange Tree's autumn season.

 

To 14 Oct, 020-8940 3633

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