Widowers' Houses, Royal Exchange, Manchester

Dodgy dealers make a killing
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The Independent Culture

Only 37 per cent of us would go for an ethical pension if it meant a lower rate of return, according to a recent survey. We would rather ignore any skeletons in the cupboards of the companies funding our lifestyle.

Harry Trench, the hard-up doctor-hero of George Bernard Shaw's Widowers' Houses is not so complacent when he discovers the source of his vital private annual income is dirty money. It is wrung from the penurious tenants of slum housing. The first of Shaw's Plays Unpleasant – censuring the ruthless exploitation of the working classes by the well-to-do – is incisive and uncomfortable in its gradual erosion of the hero's high moral ground. It is also extremely funny.

Greg Hersov's crisp and rich-textured production, playing in Manchester's former Victorian cotton-trading hall, has an ace cast led by Roger Lloyd Pack's tenacious self-made landlord, Sartorius. Stiff-backed Lloyd Pack, with his menacing monotonal delivery and monomaniac obsession with making money through buying-to-let, is clearly not a man to be messed with, as his rent collector, Lickcheese, soon finds out. Just what a nasty piece of work this Lickcheese is, as he goes about his brutish work, is glossed over by Shaw, who has him reinvent himself as a cocky expert on shady insider dealing in the property market. Ian Bartholomew's resilient portrayal of this suddenly upwardly mobile member of a society to which he had so recently been in thrall, is a lovely piece of acting.

Ian Shaw's lofty Cokane, the pompous foil to Ben Addis's puppyish Trench, is spiffingly, superficially correct, in contrast to Trench who is so heartily disapproving of the origins of his prospective father-in-law's fortune. The real "unpleasantness" is in Trench's disillusionment and eventual acceptance of an involvement in a dodgy business deal, in the full knowledge that his income will forever by tainted. In Lucy Briggs-Owen's doughty performance, Blanche comes across as a true daughter of Sartorius, strong-minded and strident, and with whom Trench may find passion but little peace in their married life.

Ashley Martin-Davis's set captures the period feel, while Blanche's costumes are pure decorative chic. But sartorially, Sartorius apart, there are a few irritating anomalies which, ironically, the programme points up in its notes on dress etiquette. Unless Trench – who bizarrely wears his white gloves throughout the final drawing-room scene – has developed scaly skin while trying to wash his hands of the murky money business, it's an inexplicable gaffe in an otherwise thoroughly enjoyable production.

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