First staged in 1906, several decades before the creation of the NHS, George Bernard Shaw’s tilt at the medical profession sits awkwardly between comedy and tragedy. Director Negar Esfandiary’s thoughtfully staged production in the intimate venue that is The Malt Theatre, seemed perhaps not quite sure enough as to where to pitch itself, with the result that perhaps neither aspect was made the most of.
Sir Colenso Ridgeon (a confidant and well-articulated Darren Funnell), has just been knighted for his research work into the cure of tuberculosis, and has the facilities to cure just ten patients of the disease, when he is confronted in his Harley Street consulting rooms by Jennifer Dubedat, with whom he immediately falls in love, the complication being that Jennifer’s husband, an extremely talented but selfish and amoral artist, is dying of TB and Jennifer is pleading with Ridgeon to cure him, presenting the doctor with the eponymous dilemma, as one of his former colleagues also has the disease and could be included in the cure. Jessica Anderson’s Jennifer is here presented as an elegant Pre-Raphaelite beauty, enough to turn any man’s head, though at times her slowness and softness of speech made for inaudibility at key moments.
Ridgeon’s colleagues, all surgeons of one so-called speciality or another, provided a number of amusing moments; the retired Leo Schutzmacker (Guy Standley), Sir Patrick Cullen (Neil Brookes with soft Irish brogue), Cutler Walpole (Sean Deegan, diagnosing everything as blood-poisoning), Sir Ralph Bloomfield Bonington (Alex Bellars, a buffoonish believer in ‘stimulating the phagocytes’) and the impoverished Scot Dr. Blenkinsop (Colin Keir) created a Greek Chorus of sorts, debating the morality of saving one life at the expense of another, while happy to take their patients’ money usually for one quack cure or another.
Having the best of the laughs was Sandi Cox’s Emmy, Ridgeon’s housekeeper, her pert manner and over-familiarity bringing a lightness of touch in sharp contrast to the serious nature of the moralities under discussion.
As the dying artist Louis Dubedat, Chris Davis perfectly put across the character’s complete lack of morals, whether borrowing money from anyone likely to be taken in by his promises of repayment, or committing bigamy, having married Jennifer while still legally married to his first wife Minnie (a brief but crucial cameo from Pamela Jackson).
The staging of the play was simple but effective, a permanent black-curtained back wall allowing the opportunity for the addition of a few well-chosen props to present the location of a particular scene. What jarred to a degree was the costuming of all six doctors in modern-day black sweaters which made for some difficulty in initially establishing their characters, and made demands on their volume and pace of delivery in the scenes where all (or most) were on stage together.