Wednesday, July 29, 2009

First reviews of Shaw Festival plays this season

Well we're almost at the end of July, and once again I am running late getting my Shaw and Stratford reviews published. At least I'm consistent! So without further adieu, let's get started; we'll begin with Shaw this time and on Saturday we'll take a look at the first offerings at Stratford.

A couple of weeks ago, I reported on the untimely death of actor/director/playwright Neil Munro; I would be remiss if I did not let you know there is a celebration of his life and work to be held Monday afternoon, August 10th at 3 pm at the Festival Theatre. His work at the Shaw Festival began in 1988 and saw him present some of his most creative work; those who worked with him and perhaps knew the man best will be on hand to celebrate Mr. Munro, who died July 13th at the relatively young age of 62. He will be missed.

Now, the main attraction for many this year at the Shaw Festival is the staging of all ten of the one-act plays collected under the title 'Tonight at 8:30'. The plays are grouped in three sets of three, with the odd play out being Star Chamber, offered as the Lunchtime Theatre show this season. You can also, if you have the constitution for it, catch all ten plays in a single day at a Coward Marathon; if you are so inclined, you can check out the Shaw website at for dates and times. I might have opted for that at one time, but now I am happy to take Coward in small doses spread throughout the summer.

I have always loved Noel Coward, and in fact his plays have always done well at Shaw: from Private Lives in 1983/84 to This Happy Breed and The Vortex in later years, Shaw just seems to have a way with presenting the plays of Noel Coward, surely one of the great playwrights of the last century in my estimation.

So it was with much anticipation and only a little trepidation I approached the first group of three Coward plays, known collectively as Brief Encounters at the Festival Theatre. Would three short, one-act plays, each one different from the next, satisfy the audience and keep them interested throughout the evening as a full length play might? The answer, I found, is probably not. There is nothing wrong with any of the plays; it just doesn't seem there's enough time to fully develop the characters and the story-lines as you would with a one-play evening. For me, I was left wanting at the end of all three one-act plays under appropriate title 'Brief Encounters'.

Artistic Director Jackie Maxwell handles the directorial duties here and does her mighty best to make all three plays as enjoyable as possible. Yet, they seem to fall flat somewhat. The first of the trio, Still Life, takes place in the refreshment room of Milford Junction Railway Station in 1936, and involves a budding romance between two married people who meet quite by chance in the refreshment room. Yes, extramarital affairs are nothing new, of course, so the subject matter is certainly relevant. The way it is presented is nice enough and the cast is strong, but somehow, it just doesn't work. Patrick Galligan is his gentlemanly best as Alec Harvey, who falls for Deborah Hay's Laura Jesson, a married woman who is torn between wifely duty and the desire to see how 'the other half' lives. Hay does a nice job with her role, as does Corrine Koslo as grumpy old Myrtle Bagot, who runs the refreshment room. Her love-interest, Albert, is played with much fun by Thom Marriott.

The second part of Brief Encounters is a more upbeat play called We Were Dancing, again featuring Galligan and Hay in a dream-dancing sort of love affair that appears not the least bit likely. But it is fun watching them glide around the floor, almost lighter than air! The third part is the weakest of the three, I found, and the least interesting to watch: Hands Across the Sea. It is well acted, again with Galligan and Hay in central roles, but in the end, I found I wasn't really warming up to the characters. Goldie Semple is definitely worth watching as The Honorable Clare Wedderburn, by the way.

Overall, Brief Encounters is nice enough, but three one-act plays do not an evening make. It continues until the 24th of October, and rates a two out of four stars.

The second installment in Tonight at 8:30, directed by former Artistic Director Christopher Newton, is 'Play, Orchestra, Play', staged at the smaller Royal George Theatre and running through to October 31st. Overall, Newton manages to pull this one off with a little more success than Maxwell's Brief Encounters, but again, the three plays grouped here are a little uneven.

Things begin with Red Peppers, a fun, at times noisy look at what might have gone on backstage at a small provincial town in England circa 1936. What we see onstage in that show is all happy and fun, of course, hiding the bitter rivalries and clashes of egos that often occur backstage. This one melds the onstage and backstage antices with considerable skill and wit, and it is helped considerably by a very strong cast. Jay Turvey and Patty Jamieson are the song-and-dance team known as Red Peppers, and they clash backstage with Mr. Edwards, played by Steven Sutcliffe and Kyle Blair's Bert Bentley. Life likely was - and probably still is - this way in some theatres; pity we couldn't be backstage more often for some of the fireworks!

Round Two of 'Play, Orchestra, Play' is Fumed Oak, set in a small home in South London in 1936. Steven Sutcliffe triumphantly returns to the Shaw Festival this year with a wonderful performance here as henpecked Mr. Gow. His wife, played by Patty Jamieson, is in for a shock on this particular day when the action plays out. For once, a guy gets to tell off the lady, and escape in one piece. It really is fun and quite fascinating to watch.

Round Three, Shadow Play, takes place in a beautiful bedroom in Mayfair in 1936. A dream sequence following a drug overdose brings a couple, the Gayforths, closer together at the conclusion. It is very nicely done, with splendid performances by Julie Martell and Steven Sutcliffe as Mrs. and Mr. Gayforth, and Jay Turvey and Patty Jamieson in strong supporting roles. Of the three, Fumed Oak is the standout, but all three fare somewhat better than 'Brief Encounters' so I rate 'Play, Orchestra, Play' a three out of four stars.

Finally, for the second year in a row, the Lunchtime offering is a hilarious romp that almost steals the show from the rest of the Tonight at 8:30 stablemates. Titled 'Star Chamber', it is Coward's clever and satirical look at actors and their egos. He is poking fun at his friends and colleagues here, and I suspect fellow actors relish the opportunity to join in on the fun. Kate Lynch expertly directs the show, which begins slowly and then builds to a specacular climax, as the actors try to get organized and join forces to help out the Actors' Orphanage, a charitable entity Coward was president of in real life for many years. Raising money with this lot is next to impossible!

Standout performances abound here, with everyone having a grand old time; Of particular note are Guy Bannerman as star-struck and staid J. M. Farmer, Neil Barclay as the loud and gregarious actor Johnny Bolton, and Fiona Byrne as the blond bombshell Xenia James. But my favourite role is that of Violet Vibart, played with great refinement by one of my favourite actresses, Sharry Flett, who quietly, elegantly, joins in the fun while being - dare we say? - very sexy in the bargain.

'Star Chamber' is by far the funniest installment of the Tonight at 8:30 collection, and is a definite must-see at the Shaw Festival this year. It runs at the Royal George Theatre until October 11th, and rates a very strong three out of four stars. The final group of three plays in the Tonight at 8:30 canon is 'Ways of The Heart' and I will report on that in about a month's time when I get a chance to catch the late-season offering at the Court House Theatre.

July 29th, 2009.

No comments: