Two romantic leads tussle across class divides in this Judi Dench-lauded play, performed at Cambridge theatre the Town and Gown – Miriam Balanescu reviews
In George Bernard Shaw’s Village Wooing, we first meet the snappily named ‘A’ and ‘Z’ aboard the Empress of Patagonia, a ship setting sail across the world. As is perhaps indicated by their names, these alphabetical characters are on either side of a spectrum: A is a member of the gentry, a reclusive travel writer – and a man – while Z, of the opposite gender, is working-class, a shop assistant and partial to a good natter.
Sneaking a peek of the high life after winning a newspaper competition, Z in Shaw2020’s current production first saunters onto stage exercising a phony, overblown Queen’s English accent, with west country intonations peeping through. Despite their differences, Z has decided A – the ‘Marco Polo Man’, author of the so-called “chatty guidebooks” series – is the man for her. Though A ignores her at first, their conversation eventually heats up and he is sucked into her ensnaring ramblings. An unspecified amount of time passes and we next see the couple ashore, on Z’s home turf: the village shop where she works. A, who, during his travels, happens to have wandered in, is unexpectedly persuaded into buying the store.
Split into three conversations (rather than acts), this unconventional comedietta explores, ironically, the “awfulness” of having to talk to other people. The dialogue leaps dramatically between poignancy and potency to stereotypical provincial coarseness and simplicity. Shaw2020’s take on the text emphasises the modernity of this play – class, a world “not rightly arranged” and choosing comfort over dreaming – while still feeling true to its 1933 setting, sometimes with the less savoury traces of misogyny and classism clinging on. It’s easy to get rushed off in the circling confusion of Joe Sargent’s A (Batman Begins, Casualty and Holby City) and Maryann O’Brien’s Z (Arcola Theatre and Ambassadors Theatre) and the chemistry between the pair is palpable.
Notably performed by Judi Dench and Richard Briers for an ITV adaptation in 1979, Village Wooing both has and hasn’t aged well. This short but sweet production, with its tiny cast of two, feels at home in the intimate setting of the Town and Gown (a Cambridge theatre which has quickly become one of our favourites). Its cosiness makes it ideal for a play delving into the intricacies of relationships, rapport and marriage. Without spoiling too much, the final knell of the wedding bells leaves us with a heavy feeling of ambivalence, something that is never quite resolved in this play.
Catch the rest of Village Wooing’s Cambridge run at the Commemoration Hall in Huntingdon on 28 and 29 July.