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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the National (Lyttelton)


  Aden Gillett and Genevieve O’Reilly/ Ph: Johan Persson

George Bernard Shaw’s avowed disapproval of private medical practice, which he regarded as an evil “conspiracy,” is effectively satirised in his serious comedy The Doctor’s Dilemma, which he wrote in 1906 and for which the National Theatre has pulled out all of its considerable stops.

While nothing in director Nadia Fall’s dazzling production can do anything other than cosmeticise the fissures inherent in the play itself, she and her excellent cast successfully camouflage the flaws in the text and accentuate the humour for all it’s worth. Indeed, I cannot remember when last I found one of Shaw’s comedies so laugh-out-loud funny. 

It also has to be noted from the outset that a hefty chunk of that enjoyment has been provided by Peter McIntosh’s stunningly convincing sets and by Neil Austin’s atmospheric lightning. Physically the show is a dream and could not be improved upon.

Though several members of the medical profession make their presences felt throughout a rather long evening, the doctor referred to in the title is bachelor Sir Colenso Ridgeon (Aiden Gillett), who, when the play begins, has just been knighted for discovering an inoculation for tuberculosis. His dilemma, it turns out, is an ethical one: Who is worth saving more, an ordinary man with a highly moral and scrupulously honest approach to life, or a scoundrel who happens to be a painter touched with genius?

The painter in question is a young man in his early 20s called Louis Dubedat. He has TB, and his attractive wife Jennifer gate-crashes Sir Colenso Ridgeon’s surgery in Marylebone, begging him to cure her ailing, poverty-stricken spouse.

At first Ridegon is adamant; he hasn’t, he says, the resources to take on another patient. It’s only when Jennifer shows him some examples of her husband’s drawings that he changes his mind. The fact that he also finds himself physically attracted to her is a further incentive for him to make Dubedat his patient.

But there’s a price to pay. He can cure the young man only at the expense of one of the 10 patients he is currently treating. That’s the dilemma.

It is only after Ridgeon and several of his colleagues meet the tubercular artist at a formal dinner to which he and Jennifer have been invited, that young Dubedat is confirmed to be a painter of genius – as well as an unscrupulous, opportunistic money-borrowing womaniser who, unbeknown to Jennifer, is also a bigamist.

At this point Sir Colenso puts his own moral equilibrium on hold. In what virtually amounts to committing “murder” (his word), he hands Dubedat over to a hit-and-miss quack (the excellent Malcolm Sinclair), deciding instead to save the life of a hard-working but indigent tubercular GP (Derek Huthinson). His motive? To pursue Jennifer for himself after her husband’s inevitable death.

Though Shaw never satisfactorily resolves the dilemma he raises, he also touches on such issues as hypocrisy, the nature of romantic love, human fallibility, art versus ethics, and, in a totally unconvincing penultimate scene, he even takes a swipe at tabloid journalism by introducing an imbecilic young reporter who has been given permission by Dubedat to cover his dying moments. As Dubedat is virtually unknown, the scene makes no sense whatsoever, as no newspaper would be interested in the death throes of an artist unfamiliar to the public.

The final act, which takes place at a Bond Street exhibition of Dubedat’s paintings organised by his wife, is equally unconvincing and ends the play on a decidedly unsatisfactory note.

Though the second half of the evening goes off the rails text-wise, Fall’s inventive, sure-footed direction comes cavalry-like to its rescue. To further help the piece along, there’s a clutch of outstanding performances – most notably Gillet’s palpably conflicted Sir Colenso; David Calder as an old retired, dyed-in-the-wool medical practitioner who refuses to acknowledge any medical advances; Paul Hertzberg as a doctor who reduces every medical condition to blood poisoning; the aforementioned Sinclair; Maggie McCarthy as Ridgeon’s fearless housekeeper; and, as the young married couple, a wan Tom Burke and a radiant-looking Genevieve O’Reilly.

Though the audience reception was fairly muted, the production and the performances do the National proud.


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