Raina (Amanda Lisman) and Bluntschli (Dylan Smith) sitting in the Library.

Arms and the Man was one of George Bernard Shaw’s first stage successes. When it first premiered, on April 21, 1894, it was met with a long standing ovation. When the crowd slowly began to quiet down, one solitary man could be heard hissing in the crowd. Shaw’s immediate response was to stand up, silence the crowd, and address the lone critic. “My dear fellow,” he said. “I quite agree with you, but what are we two against so many?” This is perhaps one of the best responses to a heckler I have ever come across. Certainly, Shaw will not need to defend his play against the audiences coming to Blue Bridge Repertory Theatre’s latest production of Arms and the Man. The crowds on opening night enthusiastically greeted the show and I will certainly not be that lone, dissenting critic. This is an entertaining and highly polished piece of theatre that makes Shaw feel fresh again.

Set at the end of the Serbo-Bulgarian War in 1885, Arms and the Man begins with Raina, a wealthy and immature Bulgarian socialite receiving word that her fashionable fiancé, an officer, has led a glorious cavalry charge and routed the Serbian forces. Raina goes to bed that evening hearing the Serbians fleeing through her streets only to wake up in the middle of the night with a Swiss mercenary demanding to be hidden from the Bulgarian forces. This mercenary, Captain Bluntschli, has fought for the Serbian forces and has a very different opinion on the cavalry charge and of war in general. Raina, slightly infatuated with Bluntschli, helps him to escape only to have him return once the war is over and make her life much more complicated. At the same time, her war-hero fiancé is growing tired of their loveless, ideal engagement and has fallen in love with Louka, Raina’s servant. The typical romantic comedy shenanigans occur – with, of course, a Shavian cynicism – and in the end, everybody ends up with the person they love. Along the way, Shaw also gets to meditate on bravery in war, coming to the conclusion that there are no brave acts, only intelligent or stupid ones. There’s also a good deal of (admittedly funny) off-colour humour leveled at the dirtiness and provincialness of Bulgarians which smacks of Shaw’s time and place.

Major Sergius Saranoff (Jay Hindle) and Louka (Vanessa Holmes)

The cast has been brought in from far and wide for this production and there’s not a weak performance to be found. Amanda Lisman’s more classical experience at Stratford works very well here, giving the affected Raina a slightly dramatic but also refined air. Dylan Smith, who plays Captain Bluntschli does a remarkable job, moving from a war-torn mercenary to a civilized and remarkably clear-sighted suitor. Smith has just come from a successful turn on Broadway and his performance here is Broadway-calibre. He infuses a great deal of intelligence into the character without ever compromising warmth or kindness. Vanessa Holmes as Louka, the rebellious and ambitious servant, was one of the most enjoyable performances in the play. She gave the character enough charisma to easily match the hugely energetic performance of her love interest – Jay Hindle as Major Sergius.

The production itself was in line with many of the other impressive sets that Blue Bridge has created over the years. However, where the Blue Bridge occasionally dwarfs the play with the set, this design easily supported the production without drawing attention. The design was strangely story-book, with boughs growing up the four poster bed and branches making up the window lattices. Yet this added a warmth to a script that can easily be too austere in its setting.

The only category in which this production falls short is its direction. Glynis Leyshon has opted to add a good deal of physical comedy, sight gags, and shtick to the show, for better and worse. These additions are often seen in modern productions of Shakespeare where they help entertain the audience through portions of the plot that might leave some behind. However, Shaw’s play is

Major Petkoff (Brian Linds) and Major Saranoff (Jay Hindle) strike a pose.

little over a century old. His jokes all still ring true and his wit is just as sharp as ever. The play is funny in its own right without characters nervously shuffling, or carrying each other across the stage, or flailing their legs in salute. At times these additions detracted from the plot. The scene in which the Bulgarian soldiers enter the bedroom looking for Bluntschli is clearly meant to raise the dramatic stakes but ended up devolving into something akin to a scene from ‘Allo ‘Allo. That being said, there are times when this more visual humour finds its mark in a very entertaining way. In particular, Jacob Richmond’s interpretation of Nicola, the much put-upon servant, is brilliantly bumbling. The physicality he finds in the role brings to life a character who can easily recede into the background.

Overall, this is yet another success brought to stage by Blue Bridge. Their casts and productions are as strong as ever and even when this play veers slightly off track, these diversions are still hilarious in their own right. Arms and the Man is enthralling to look at; the actors are brilliant and sly; the script is, of course, ingenious. This is a benchmark for a night out at the theatre.

- Thomas Stuart