Tuesday, November 29

Village Wooing – Etcetera Theatre

Produced as part of the Camden Fringe Festival, George Bernard Shaw’s “Village Wooing” was written in 1933 while he was on a world cruise on the Empress of Britain. This two-hander in the form of three conversations has characters loosely based on people Shaw knew – writer Lytton Strachey and Jisbella Lyth, postmistress in Ayot St Lawrence, Hertfordshire, where he lived for most of his life. Shaw said of his play, “..my efforts to write resulted in nothing at first but a very trivial comedietta which only Edith Evans could make tolerable.”  He was wrong. This is a mini gem of a play, very much of its time and a period delight.

The unnamed characters, known only as “A” and “Z” meet on board a cruise liner, he a widowed writer and aesthete, struggling to find the words for his Marco Polo travel guide as he sits in a quiet corner of the deck, she a garrulous and adventurous young woman presenting herself as a wealthy lone traveller. She’s outgoing and determined, disturbing his peace with a welter of chatter until he is forced to put his notebook aside and talk to her.  He quickly realises she is not quite who she purports to be.  He finds her annoying, she thinks he’s stand-offish, but both are dissatisfied with their lives in different ways, and their budding connection is destined to change both their futures. It’s a charming and funny piece, which Joe Sargent as “A” and Maryann O’Brien as “Z” play up to the hilt.

Sargent’s “A” is an intellectual yearning for a less artistically tortured life. He gives the prickly character a depth of vulnerability, even when presenting himself as unfeeling and cold.  At the outset, O’Brien’s “Z” is the full whack of the 1930s upper-class lady, flouncing and chatting incessantly, before reverting to her true self. She’s almost the opposite of “A”, lacking intellectual curiosity about the magnificent sights she’s seen on the cruise, and anxious to return home to her simple life working in the village shop, post office and telephone exchange. O’Brien handles the sudden changes of pace and voice with aplomb, with Sargent looking suitably astounded by this unexpectedly complex woman.

Jonas Cemm’s direction is spot-on, producing a broad comedy with an underlying thread of vulnerability and truth.  The set by Arden Cemm is cleverly minimalist with just a couple of deck chairs, some crates and a lifebelt for the liner, and a very believably stocked village shop for the second and third “conversations”. 

“A” demonstrates an inherent 1930s misogyny and the change in his feelings in the third act is rather sudden but ignore that. This piece is a short but highly enjoyable treat. https://camden.ssboxoffice.com/events/village-wooing/

Reviewer: Carole Gordon

Reviewed: 17th August 2021

North West End UK Rating: ★★★★