ME AND MY GIRL at the Festival Theatre

THE MADNESS OF KING GEORGE at the Royal George Theatre

1837: THE FARMERS’ REVOLT at the Court House Theatre

SAINT JOAN at the Festival Theatre

Michael Therriault (Bill) and Kristy Frank (Sally) with ensemble in “Me and My Girl” (photo: David Cooper)

Me and My Girl (book and lyrics by L. Arthur Rose and Douglas Furber, revised by Stephen Fry for a 1985 revival, music by Noel Gay, with contemporary contributions by Mike Ockrent) is a 1937 London musical that opened as the Christmas show at the Victoria Palace. John Simon once described it as “quality poppycock.” And he was surely correct because despite its popular “Lambeth Walk,” and acknowledgement of specialty music and dances of its time, it retains the flavour of upper and lower-class Victorian London. The revised libretto preserves the cockney rhyming slang and word play and indulges in a few playful anachronisms and groaner puns, with its sly innocence bespeaking a sentimentality leavened by wryness. Bill Snibson, a jaunty cockney from Lambeth, is casually insolent in his low-class, light-fingered manner, but he turns out to be the true heir to the title of Lord of Hareford Hall. The upper-class Harefords will reluctantly accept him if he gives up his girlfriend Sally Smith and marries someone suitable—say, Lady Jacqueline, who has been giving her silly but amiable suitor (and cousin) Gerald a runaround. While Bill is continually delinquent in his manners, Sally is sent to a speech professor to learn how to be a lord’s lady. A double Pygmalion fable—with a bow to GBS—its cockney hero and heroine take turns at being Pygmalion and Galatea, but without the elegant charm and eloquence of the Shavian masterpiece.

At the Festival Theatre, the show is given an earnest workout. Drew Facey’s dreary front curtain of working class London quickly yields to pastel dappled greens, and Hareford Hall glitters as it should. Sue LePage’s costumes deserve praise (except for one appalling eyesore), but Kevin Lamotte’s lighting is sometimes unsubtle. Parker Esse’s choreography (apart from the show-stopping Lambeth Walk) is museum quality in the wrong sense, with a lot of knee-slapping and hopping about. Yet, there is an exuberance to the tap dancing with a very charming tap dance duet between Bill and Sally. The general competence of the cast (with notable impressions left by Kristi Frank’s sweet and spunky Sally, Ric Reid’s besotted Sir John Tremayne, Sharry Flett’s tart Duchess of Dene, Elodie Gillett’s gold-digging Lady Jacqueline, and Jay Turvey’s family solicitor seemingly made for Gilbert and Sullivan) is transcended by Michael Therriault’s wisecracking prankster Bill in a gem of comic vaudeville and music-hall farce. In an obvious sense, it is a busy performance, but this sort of busy-ness is more than justified in context. He is as light-footed in his hoofing and tap as he is light-fingered in his pickpocketing, and there is no shtick that seems beyond him. When deflated by Sally, he collapses like a balloon quickly leaking air. Sometimes he is so active in his farce, that his singing voice loses resonance, but blessed with plastic physical flexibility that allows him to adopt all sorts of contortions, and fortified by his timing, Therriault works wonders, turning the show into his own masterpiece.

Chick Reid (Queen Charlotte) and Tom McCamus (George III) (photo: David Cooper)

Tom McCamus seems to be the masterpiece in Kevin Bennett’s version of Alan Bennett’s savage satire The Madness of George III. The English playwright’s satire focuses on a few months in 1788-89 when the monarch abruptly loses his mind, and then almost as abruptly recovers temporarily. The politics of the day are crammed very skimpily but tightly into very little plot.  The king gets ill in Act 1 (probably from a still not fully understood hereditary metabolic disorder called porphyria that attacks the nervous system), then gets better in Act 2, at which point there is the affirmation of England’s resurrection and the royal status quo. Much is made of the king’s eccentricities and follies (some verging on madness)—his gleeful snuggling in bed with his queen, whom he calls “Mrs. King”; his lusty assaults upon ladies-in-waiting; his insulting of the Prince of Wales for being fat; his calling for a bag with which to carry state secrets to his grave; and his chronic run-on sentences and echolalia—and there are clinical depictions of crackpot, even cruel medical treatments that run the gamut from stool and urine samples to strenuous purges, straitjacketing, hot glass cupping, and binding to a new throne that seems to prefigure the electric chair. Such details add texture and volume to character-study, and Tom McCamus displays the king’s vulgarities with relish, hitting every comic or farcical note, allowing the slops of his affected mind to spill over in a virtuoso performance that succeeds in connecting the “madness” to an ultimately touching humanity.

Alas, this superb performance has to virtually knock through the director’s misjudged interpretation of the play. Staged as a play-within-a-play, with actors engaging with audience members before the action proper, the production lacks style and conviction for the most part. Andre Sills almost cancels the strong impression he left last season in Athol Fugard’s Master Harold and the Boys with his gay courtier, a prancing fem, that gives heterosexuality a sour name for being such an egregious misrepresentation of homosexuality. When Martin Happer as the fat Prince of Wales laments: “People laugh at me,” he seems to be unaware that one reason may be his overblown affectations of makeup, wig, and acting mannerisms. The doubling of roles usually results in a doubling of awfulness. I except Chick Reid’s Queen Charlotte, and Jim Mezon’s Fox from this charge. In terms of the royal entertainments, Cameron Grant offers the sexiest elegance as a court dancer. But because of the generally artless style—where costumes, wigs, and makeup seem to define caricature more than character—the production turns into an almost negligible museum piece.

Ensemble in “1837: The Farmers’ Revolt” (photo: David Cooper)

Less negligible but also not without a museum quality is Philip Akin’s staging of 1837: The Farmers’ Revolt, a collaborative piece by Theatre Passe Muraille and Rick Salutin. This is another instance of pioneer documentary Canadian playwriting, and, therefore, another case of drama in a missionary position. Originally created as an homage to a moment of political rebellion by farmers and ordinary rural folk in Upper Canada, it is now revised to become a homage to some of the leaders of the alternative theatre movement of the 1970s, as well as a belated homage to some of our First Nations and early colonized people of colour. All to the good in this motivation to correct the soft, simplistic nationalism of the original, but fundamental flaws remain, despite director Akin’s commendable attempts to use cross-gender, cross-cultural casting and to incorporate stylized ritual, chant, a magic trick and ventriloquist act as theatrical devices or political metaphors, weaving new themes through the structure and finding historical sparks that grew into a Confederation blaze. Rachel Forbe’s set design of logs and First Nations art evoke a pre-Confederation era, that Steve Lucas’s lighting and John-Luke Addison’s music score help extend. There is solid ensemble work all the way through, with Donna Belleville, Sharry Flett, Marla McLean, Ric Reid, Jonah McIntosh, Jeremiah Sparks, Cherissa Richards, and Travis Seetoo playing multiple roles and across gender and racial lines with pith and some pungency. And yet, the production is more about telling than showing, and for me the piece only came fully alive from the Susanna Moodie sequence. What was once believed to bespeak gadfly radicalism now seems mainly reasonably anti-colonial—perhaps because the original impetus to challenge the anglophile theatre establishment in Canada has now shrunk into a colonial twilight. After all, it is a Brit (Artistic Director Tim Carroll) who has run with this play in his repertoire at a festival dedicated to an Anglo-Irish genius.

Back at the Festival Theatre, there is that same genius’s Saint Joan, which on the surface could be regarded as a museum-piece of history and tragi-comedy. That it is not is due to Tim Carroll’s imaginative staging, replete with a cleverly simple design by Judith Bowden, equally effective lighting by Kevin Lamotte (dark ripples on a light purple pad for the Loire scene; ominous shadows for the Trial and dungeon scenes), music direction by Claudio Vena, and an ensemble that shows strength down the line. Using a non-specific but modern time period for an abstract set design and costuming, Carroll stamps his production with a visual simplicity: a large glass cube that can overhang or entrap or merely contain characters, a huge rear glass wall that lifts, tall dark grey panels, a vertical pole that rises from the floor or shrinks back into it, and illuminated edges for his floor, surrounded by blackness. The design has a restrained colour palette (mainly grey, black, and white) that does not permit anything extraneous or irrelevant to get in the way of the text that Shaw wanted actors to speak as swiftly and as clearly as possible, without sacrificing his arguments while capturing his verbal music. There are a few moments when the very prosaic Shaw actually approaches poetry, as when a kingfisher is compared to blue lightning. And, though he was verbose, Shaw gave every significant character his or her due in his plays, allowing each one to present a point of view or thought unpressured by his own overwhelming intellect.

Ensemble of “Saint Joan” (photo: David Cooper)

The wonderful thing about Saint Joan is not simply the clever arguments by churchmen, aristocrats, or military men; it is the title character’s strong instincts that establish her as a unique human being rather than as a glorified heroine or ethereal saint. The best Saint Joans have been actresses who lead with the heart rather than with the mind, with simplicity of faith and inner conviction than with religiosity. While Sara Topham is not yet among the top flights of such leading actresses in this role, her Joan is a remarkable performance because of its vitality, shrewdness, humour, simple boldness, and resistance to any wishy-washy strain or stained-glass apotheosis. True, she doesn’t use any English county accent—as has been the practice of English actresses—nor does she really blaze after the recantation scene, but she reveals a teenage country maid who is caught up in a sweep of history, attempting to push through (with her limitations) the changing winds of time and event. She compels attention by virtue of her simplicity, her inner conviction, and her ability to show the character’s daring defiance of gender, military, and church boundaries.

Carroll’s production is thick with absorbing performances, especially by Tom McCamus as wry Warwick, Graeme Somerville as formidable Cauchon, Karl Ang as de Stogumber, Benedict Campbell as the eminent Archbishop, and Jim Mezon as the Inquisitor. Wade Bogert-O’Brien’s Dauphin is a cowering boy-man, though lacking in real eccentricity, while Gray Powell is a Dunois of masculine lyricism. The tent scene is effective, as it usually is when played well, but even at that, it could have done with some cutting by Shaw. In sum, the ensemble shows that the play is a communal work, not a solo star turn.  And when it is  such, it is not a museum piece of chronicle history.

Only the Epilogue falls a little flat, but I have yet to see any production of this play succeed wholly in this anti-climax. It’s clear that Shaw didn’t know when to stop or how to effect a satisfying closure—perhaps because real tragedy eluded him, except, possibly, in the case of Heartbreak House. But Saint Joan has sweep, power, and terror enough, and Tim Carroll’s production is thoughtful without being tedious, and tense without being overwrought.


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