Present Laughter at the Shaw Festival

Steven Sutcliffe and Claire Jullien as Garry and Liz Essendine

The Shaw Festival does Noël Coward practically as well as it does Shaw, and this year’s Present Laughter, a 1939 comedy, is a good example. In fact, a repertory company like the Shaw’s, whose players have a lot of experience with one another, is especially suited to perform Present Laughter, which is a play about the intimacy and cohesion of a small group of friends.  These actors have collectively played a lot of Coward; the show’s star, Steven Sutcliffe, was in the cast 20 years ago when the Shaw Festival last did Present Laughter. It’s a briskly-paced, well-acted show.

This play gives us a few chaotic days in the life of British actor Garry Essendine (Sutcliffe), a character who closely resembles Coward himself, especially the way Mr. Sutcliffe plays him – charismatic, vain, flamboyant, supremely self-confident.  I liked Noël Coward all the more after seeing this play again; there’s a lot to be said for someone who is sufficiently self-aware to poke fun at his own foibles.

Steven Sutcliffe and Mary Haney as Garry Essendine and his secretary, Monica Reed

I’d be glad to trade my chaos for Garry Essendine’s.  What play to pick for my next star turn?  What theater to put it in?  What actress to pick to replace the one who just broke her leg?  How to get rid of a star-struck airhead who’s still there in the morning?

Fortunately for Garry, he has plenty of support.  Besides the valet and the Swedish cook who keep his apartment/studio functioning (my wife and I loved William Schmuck’s loft-style set and the extravagant dressing gowns for Garry), Garry has a long-time personal assistant (the wonderful Mary Haney, whose deadpan one-liners cracked me up) and a tight inner circle of associates that includes his still affectionate ex-wife, Liz (Claire Jullien, in a complex role that she makes look easy).

Steven Sutcliffe as Garry Essendine and Moya O’Connell as Joanna Lyppiatt

The fly in the ointment is the sexually voracious Joanna (Moya O’Connell, and very convincing in the role), who has been married to Hugo (Patrick McManus) for five years but is still viewed as an interloper by the rest of the circle.  Garry is alarmed to learn that Joanna has been having an affair with Morris (Gray Powell), which threatens to break up the “family.”  Garry is even more discomfited when, late one evening, Joanna tries to seduce Garry himself.

In the midst of all these crises, Garry finds his apartment infested with Roland Maule, an aspiring young playwright who is obsessed with Garry.  Jonathan Tan’s high-speed portrayal of Roland was a great crowd-pleaser the night we saw this show, though it seemed to me a bit of a diversion that interrupted the feel of the play.  Far more perfectly in the spirit was the iridescent Jennifer Phipps, who plays an elderly society lady who has persuaded Garry to give her niece an audition.

Present Laughter is a brilliantly constructed comic masterpiece.  People insinuate themselves into Garry’s apartment under false pretenses, a la Wodehouse and Wilde; inconvenient people are hustled into side rooms to avoid awkward encounters.  The repartee dazzles.

But if I can’t list Present Laughter as one of my favorite Coward plays, it’s because the world of Garry Essendine is simply too far removed from mine.  Garry and his pals aren’t just in show business, they’re at the top of the pile.  How much different are the lives of these stars from the lives of George and Lily Pepper, the fading vaudeville performers in Coward’s Red Peppers (see this post)!  Garry Essendine, poor fellow, has to deal with impudent servants, with wannabe playwrights, and with women who throw themselves at him.  The Peppers, on the other hand, have to cope with drunken musicians who play their songs too fast; they have to worry about where they might get their next engagement.  We can identify with George and Lily, never with Garry.  And what a contrast between the characters in Present Laughter and the work-a-day families in Coward’s Fumed Oak (see, again, this post) and This Happy Breed, which is perhaps the quintessential portrayal of the English middle class.

Coward is almost the only politically conservative playwright whose works are presented at the Shaw Festival, and Present Laughter is, without making a big deal about it, a capitalist-friendly play.  Like other business people, Garry and his associates are concerned with maintaining their brand, new product development, business finance, personnel issues, and so on.  (Hugo, who produces Garry’s plays, is one of the few capitalists who is favorably portrayed in any notable twentieth-century play.) And in its way Present Laughter is a “family values” play — the plot is primarily about how Garry, Monica, and Liz fend off threats to their clan.

And yet we couldn’t help seeing Present Laughter as an expression of Coward’s views on freedom in sexual behavior and as an “apology” for his own lifestyle.  The moral of the play, if it could be said to have one, is that what a fellow does in bed with someone shouldn’t matter to anyone else (a proposition expressly defended not only by Garry but also by his valet, Fred).  And so, in the final scene, Liz comes back to Garry knowing full well that in their future life together he will surely not be faithful to her.  Indeed, the climactic joke in Present Laughter, which comes in the play’s last minute, is that Garry, Hugo, and Morris forget their jealous quarrel over Joanna the second she leaves the flat and turn instead to what really matters – what really binds their “family” together – which is the joy of hammering out the details of their next production.

This is fantasy, of course – fantasy to suppose that any husband, wife, or lover, whether in heterosexual or homosexual relationships, can realistically be expected not to be jealous when a partner has a little casual fun on the side.  Sexual possessiveness is not a conditioned social reflex; we’re hard-wired to feel it. No doubt Coward felt that more people should have “open” relationships like that of his friend Cole Porter and his wife Linda Lee Thomas.  Unfortunately, human nature is not so flexible.


Lennox Robinson’s Drama at Inish at the Shaw Festival

Corrine Koslo as Constance, Ric Reid as hotel proprietor John Twohig, and Peter Krantz as Peter Hurley

(September 2011) It is rare that this writer can’t find something to complain about, but in the case of Drama at Inish, we couldn’t. We loved this gentle, unpretentious comedy and weren’t surprised that it pleased everyone else enough to induce the Shaw Festival to add half a dozen more performances to the original run.

Drama at Inish is a gentle, affectionate satire of Irish provincial people and the troupes of performers that toured through Great Britain during the 1920s. Most of the play’s characters live or work at a hotel in the quiet seaside town of Inish, where proprietor John Twohig has engaged the De La Mare Repertory Company to perform for the summer season in the hotel’s playhouse. The placid John (Ric Reid, in the nicest turn we’d seen from him in a while) and his wife Annie (Donna Belleville) run the hotel with the help of John’s spinster sister Lizzie (Mary Haney), a maid, and a boots.

But things change in Inish when the actor Hector de la Mare (Thom Marriott) and his wife Constance Constantia (Corrine Koslo) arrive at the hotel for their summer run. Their playbill will be different from the low-comedy variety shows and circuses that usually come to Inish; Hector’s traveling troupe plays “serious” theater. As Hector explains (self-importantly) to another guest:

I now confine myself entirely — with the co-operation of Miss Constantia — to psychological and introspective drama. The great plays of Russia, an Ibsen or two, a Strindberg — I think very little of the French.

Mary Haney as Lizzie Twohig and Maggie Blake as Helena

To everyone’s surprise, the people of Inish flock to the playhouse night after night. In short order, they begin to identify all too closely with the heroes and heroines of A Doll’s House and Uncle Vanya and to imagine that they too are caught in the same sorts of tragedies as the heroes and heroines of Ibsen’s and Chekhov’s plays. Lizzie, for example, convinces herself that her life is blighted because a neighbor, Peter Hurley (Peter Krantz, as a delightfully hapless local politician), toyed with her affections by “skylarkin'” with her when they were both young.  John Twohig’s son Eddie (Craig Pike), like a Chekhov character, comes to doubt that life is worth living after he fails, for the dozenth time, to persuade Christine Lambert (Julia Course) to marry him. 

Constance (Corinne Koslo) and Hector (Thom Mariott) never really step out of character

We have enjoyed Mary Haney so much in so many roles at the Shaw that it would be hard to say that the endearing Lizzie Twohig is the one we liked best, but every scene she plays in this play is a treasure.  And Thom Marriott and Corrine Koslo, as the well-traveled, impossibly vain, and ever-theatrical leading man and lady, are inexpressibly funny. Hector and Constance live so much in the emotionally overcharged world of their plays that they never really leave it anymore; it’s no wonder that they pull the people of Inish from the real world into theirs.

As traveling actors, Hector and his company follow squarely in the tradition of the Crummleses, the 1830s repertory company affectionately portrayed by Dickens in Nicholas Nickleby.  (See this post for some thoughts we had about the Shakespeare actors in Nickleby.)  They also remained us a little of the traveling variety show performers who play so prominently in J. B. Priestley’s novel The Good Companions, which we read just last year.  Hector and Constance are even closer relatives, dramatically speaking, of George and Lily Pepper, the vaudeville pair immortalized by Noël Coward in his wonderful one-act play Red Peppers, which we saw at the Shaw Festival in 2009 (see this post). 

We don’t read the newspaper reviews of Shaw Festival shows very faithfully, although they’re easy to find on the internet, but at least one review we saw suggested patronizingly that Drama at Inish is not a very substantial play and doubted whether it was worth reviving.  Of course, the very premise of Drama at Inish is to poke gentle fun at plays that professional critics do consider substantial!  The themes of Drama at Inish may not be as profound as those in, say, Waiting for Godot or The Glass Menagerie, but its portrayals of human nature, with all the foolishness and vanity and self-absorption to which we are prone, are as true as true can be. That’s an accomplishment, and it’s good enough for us.  Along with the wife of our bosom, we would have liked to have seen it again.

Until the Shaw’s 2011 playbill was announced, we were unfamiliar with the Irish playwright Lennox Robinson, who was a contemporary and colleague of the Irish playwrights Lady Gregory, J. M. Synge, and W. B. Yeats. We were grateful that director Jackie Maxwell did not insist that her actors use authentic, heavy Irish accents, which we would have had trouble understanding, and we hope for more Irish plays at the Shaw Festival.  In the meantime, we were amused to see that one of the plays mocked by Drama at Inish, Ibsen’s masterpiece Hedda Gabler, will be on the playbill at the Shaw in 2012.

Lorne Kennedy as Norrison and Jeff Meadows as Tony Foot

Nothing could make the case for a repertory acting company better than the trio of Drama at Inish, Bernard Shaw’s Candida (which we appreciated at the Shaw Festival earlier this year), and the Shaw’s 2011 one-hour lunchtime play, The President, an inordinately clever play to which we will not devote a separate post. Lorne Kennedy, the star of The President, played the lead role three years ago at the Shaw; we missed the show that year and were grateful to have a second chance to see it. The President is the most concentrated hour of laughs anyone is ever likely to experience, and if the motor-mouthed Mr. Kennedy is still up to this demanding role, we’d gladly see it again in another couple of years. If it’s revived a third time, we trust that Jeff Meadows will also return as Tony Foot, the vulgar New York cab driver that Kennedy transforms into a successful businessman and pillar of society in a mere 60 minutes.

We preview the Shaw Festival’s 2009 season

Even under Jackie Maxwell, Shaw Festival seasons have been fairly predictable — which, of course, suits Emsworth, who is deeply suspicious of change, just fine.

For instance, since The Devil’s Disciple hadn’t been seen at Niagara-on-the-Lake since 1996, it was overdue for one of the two slots for Shaw plays, and a good bet to pop up in 2009.

For Emsworth’s preview of the Shaw Festival’s 2010 season, which will feature two classic American comedies, The Women and Harvey, see this post.

And since the Shaw Festival did an O’Neill play three years ago, which we guessed and hoped was the beginning of an O’Neill cycle, an O’Neill play on the 2009 playbill would have been a good guess (in fact, we’ll get A Moon for the Misbegotten).


Noel Coward

We also would have laid money on another Noel Coward play in 2009, because Coward is always in rotation at the Shaw Festival. Maybe The Vortex!? That’s what we hoped. Or another pass at Cavalcade?

Well, the schedule’s out now, but there won’t be a major Coward play. Instead, there will be ten minor Coward works at the Shaw Festival this year, each a one-act play. Nine of these are collectively titled Tonight at 8:30; the ten pieces will be presented as part of four different shows. This year, Bernard Shaw won’t be the most-seen playwright at the Shaw Festival.

We’ll see most of the 2009 playbill, as usual.  Here’s why we’re interested in most of them — and less interested in a few of them.


Eugene O'Neill

1. A Moon for the Misbegotten (Eugene O’Neill) We’ve never seen this play, but we loved what the Shaw repertory company did with O’Neill’s comedy Ah, Wilderness two years ago, and we’ve wanted to see what it would do with an O’Neill play with a little more angst.

And we admire the work of director Joseph Ziegler, who was in top form with Bernard Shaw’s Getting Married in the season just ending (see the Emsworth review); he also directed Ah, Wilderness.  It’ll be at the Courthouse Theatre. The formidable Jim Mezon will play Josie Hogan’s father.

2. Play, Orchestra, Play (Noel Coward) This show will be made up of three of Noel Coward’s one-act plays: Red Peppers, Fumed Oak, and Shadow Play. Two of these have songs woven into the plot, one (Fumed Oak) is straight comedy. There’s no big musical at the Shaw Festival this year; these take its place. It’ll be at the Royal George Theatre, directed by Christopher Newton.


Lawrence and Coward

We know quite a few Noel Coward songs but not, in general, which of his shows they’re from. But burrowing into our library, we find that Coward and his stage partner Gertrude Lawrence played George and Lily Pepper, a music hall song-and-dance team, in Red Peppers in 1936 (so this show’s going to be lively). We also find that one of the two songs in Red Peppers is “Has Anybody Seen Our Ship?” while the two Coward songs in Shadow Play are “You Were There” and “Then”.

3. The Entertainer (John Osborne) The anti-establishment Englishman John Osborne is legendary; he’s the original angry young man.  But we’ve never seen his work. Existentialism and vaudeville will be a curious combination. 


We'll wait to see Olivier's movie till after we've seen the Shaw production

We learned recently, after watching an old interview with Lawrence Olivier, that the role of the washed-up comedian Archie Rice was written by Osborne for the great actor, who claimed, “”I have an affinity with Archie Rice,” Olivier once opined. “It’s what I really am. I’m not like Hamlet.”

We’re also very curious to see the Shaw Festival’s new small performing space, which is apparently the rehearsal studio at the Festival Theater. And we look forward to Benedict Campbell, a fantastic song-and-dance man in Mack and Mabel a couple of years ago, as Archie Rice. This play will run for less than two months, from July 31 through September 20. We’ll get our tickets early.

4. Brief Encounters (Noel Coward) Three more one-act plays by Noel Coward in this show: Still Life, We Were Dancing, and Hands Across the Sea. It’s in the Shaw Festival’s largest venue, the Festival Theatre. Deborah Hay and Patrick Galligan, who were superb in 2008 in After the Dance, are in the cast.

We know one of these plays pretty well: Still Life, also known as Brief Encounter. It’s a painfully accurate sketch of an illicit love affair. We do know and love Coward’s highly-polished short stories; the stories and the one-act plays are closely related (but have some interesting differences that we hope to explore in a later post!). We think Artistic Director Jackie Maxwell is the Shaw’s best director. All in all, our expectations for this show are high.

Watching an episode of John Mortimer’s Rumpole of the Bailey recently, we were pleasantly surprised to hear a bit of one of the songs from We Were Dancing from Henry, the chambers clerk who is responsible for getting briefs for Rumpole and his colleagues.  Henry and the  chambers secretary are part of an amateur theatrical group that was, in this episode, doing Noel Coward.  We’re guessing the British public has greater familiarity with the Tonight at 8:30 plays than we North Americans do.


Seurat's masterpiece

5. Sunday in the Park with George (James Lapine, Stephen Sondheim)  Somehow we’ve never seen this musical, but we surely know the painting that it revolves around, and so do you. It’s Georges Seurat’s “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.” Like Ferris Bueller and his friends, we’ve admired it at the Art Institute of Chicago. Stephen Sondheim’s musical is about Seurat and the creation of his painting. There are those who think this is not merely one of the finest American musicals, but one of the finest American plays, period.

We don’t know the songs in the show either, only that they’re said to be written in a style similar to the pontillism (paintstrokes consisting of many small dots) for which Seurat was known. Steven Sutcliffe (Seurat) and Julie Martelli (his lover “Dot”) will have the lead roles. With Sunday in the Park with George, we will get to indulge our interests in art, music and drama all at once.


Bernard Shaw

6. The Devil’s Disciple (George Bernard Shaw) Honestly, the plays by Shaw are what we usually look forward to most.  And in 2008, the Shaw plays Getting Married and Mrs. Warren’s Profession were what we liked best at Niagara-on-the-Lake. 

But we didn’t take much to The Devil’s Disciple when we saw it in 1996, we haven’t enjoyed reading it since then, and we can’t get over feeling annoyed with the old lefty for feeling free to moralize about the American war for independence.

On the other hand, our acquaintance with Bernard Shaw is deeper than it was twelve years ago, so maybe our encounter with the play will be different this time around. And Evan Buliung will play Dick Dudgeon. We’re big fans, and even though we liked Buliung a lot in The Taming of the Shrew and Romeo and Juliet in Stratford in 2008, we think he belongs at the Shaw Festival.

7. Ways of the Heart (Noel Coward) As noted, the three full-length Coward shows at the Shaw in 2009 are collectively titled Tonight at 8:30, and Coward meant them to be presented as a group, though not necessarily in any particular order.

This is the third of the Tonight at 8:30 shows : The Astonished Heart, Family Album, and Ways and Means, directed by Blair Williams, in the Shaw Festival’s smallest venue, the Courthouse Theatre, which could well be the best place in Niagara-on-the-Lake to see short-form Noel Coward. We know Ways and Means, an absolutely pitiless portrait of a young couple who sponge off their high-society friends. The cast includes Claire Juillien, David Jansen, and one of my favorites at the Shaw, Laurie Paton.

The Shaw Festival is doing all ten of the Shaw one-acts in the same day, starting at 9:30 a.m., on three separate days (August 8, August 29, and September 19, 2009). Too intense for us.

8. Star Chamber (Noel Coward) This Coward one-act play will be the Shaw’s lunchtime offering at the Courthouse Theatre. The Shaw’s promotional materials say that it’s “rarely produced,” but that’s an understatement. Coward apparently wasn’t happy with it; in 1936 he pulled it after only one performance and didn’t publish it with other plays. We doubt that Coward was a good judge of his own work.

9. Born Yesterday (Garson Kanin) By coincidence, Emsworth, who likes old films, happened to see the 1950 movie, starring Judy Holliday, and based on the original stage production, for the first time not long ago on Turner Classic Movies. So how do we feel about seeing a new stage version with Deborah Hay as Billie Dawn? Not very strongly, we guess.

Michel Tremblay


10. Albertine in Five Times (Michel Tremblay) In our parochial ignorance, all we know about Michel Tremblay, the French-Canadian playwright, is that he wrote Hosanna, the flamboyant play with which the late Richard Monette (long-time artistic director at the Stratford Festival) made his name as an actor in 1974.

Albertine in Five Times appears to have an all-women cast, as did Gabriel Garcia Lorca’s The House of Bernarda Alba, one of Jackie Maxwell’s adventurous play choices early in her tenure at the Shaw. The cast will include Mary Haney and Patricia Hamilton.

What we want to know is, when are we going to have another Lorca play at the Shaw Festival?

11. In Good King Charles’s Golden Days (George Bernard Shaw) Even with the talented Peter Hutt (alas, he’s deserted to the Stratford Festival for the 2009 season) as King Charles, we remember the Shaw’s 1997 version of this Bernard Shaw as an extraordinarily talky, sleep-inducing play, even by Shaw’s standards of talkiness. It’s pretty far down on our list of favorite Shaw plays. But the 2009 cast for this show is very strong, with Benedict Campbell, Laurie Paton, Lisa Codrington, Mary Haney, and Graeme Somerville.

All in all . . . We think that putting all your eggs in one basket with four shows consisting of one-act plays no one’s ever heard of — and not including any popular musical in the playbill — is a bit risky. The Shaw plays are two of our least favorite. But we think we’ll like this season all right.

AUGUST 2009: We’ve seen a number of the 2009 Shaw Festival shows now; here’s what we thought of them:

Bernard Shaw’s comedy The Devil’s Disciple, set in America during the Revolutionary War (see this post)
Garson Kanin’s classic American comedy Born Yesterday (see this post)
Noël Coward’s Ways of the Heart (see this post)
Noël Coward’s Play, Orchestra, Play (see this post)
Noël Coward’s Star Chamber (see this post)
Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George (see this post)
Noël Coward’s Brief Encounters (see this post)
Eugene O’Neill’s A Moon for the Misbegotten (see this post)

Mrs. Warren’s Profession at the Shaw Festival

We’ve been going to the Shaw Festival long enough now to see most all the full-length Bernard Shaw plays that are actually performed anymore (which is still most of them). We’ve also seen some of them more than once: Major Barbara (1998 and 2004), The Philanderer (1995 and 2007), Arms and the Man (1994 and 2006), and now, Mrs. Warren’s Profession (1997 and 2008).

What surprised us was that in each case we saw a livelier, better-focused, more entertaining production the second time around.  From which we conclude that, for the last half dozen years, the Shaw Festival has been doing Shaw better then ever.

This year’s Mrs. Warren’s Profession is a case in point.  The 1997 production had left us with the impression that this was a relatively humorless Shaw play with a strained plot and an uninteresting heroine who shouldn’t have had so much trouble deciding how she felt about her mother.  After seeing the 2008 version, we know better.

Andrew Bunker and Moya O'Connell as Vivie and Frank in "Mrs. Warren's Profession"

As this play opens, the 22-year-old Vivie Warren (Moya O’Connell) has just graduated from Cambridge with an advanced degree in mathematics (a rare accomplishment for a woman in the 1890s). What next? She has an opportunity with an actuarial office in London; at the same time, during a vacation at her mother’s country cottage, she has been dallying with a young man from the neighborhood, Frank Gardner (Andrew Bunker).

Unaware that her daughter has ideas of her own, Vivie’s mother Kitty Warren (Mary Haney), wants to set her up in society.   But after years of boarding schools and university, Vivie hardly knows her mother and has questions.  Who is her father?  (Why was Shaw attracted to this theme?  He used it in You Never Can Tell as well.)  How has her mother made her money? And why does she spend all her time away in Brussels and Vienna?

Mary Haney and Benedict Campbell as Mrs. Warren and Crofts

Vivie is shocked to learn from her mother and her mother’s friends that the money that has put her through England’s finest schools has come from a string of European brothels managed by her mother — and that her mother was herself once a courtesan.  She is also dismayed to find that her mother is encouraging her to entertain the matrimonial advances of a wealthy but dissolute baronet (played by Benedict Campbell) twice her age — who was once one of her mother’s customers.

This show, as directed by Jackie Maxwell, never rushes and never drags.  The fine sets, which reminded us of tinted etchings, drew us back to the late 19th century.  In general, Ms. Maxwell followed the set, costuming, and stage directions that Shaw set down when he wrote the play.  We were grateful for this; too often directors who would not substitute their own dialogue for a playwright’s have no qualms about ignoring the director’s other specifications for his play.

On the left: Mary Haney as Mrs. Warren. On the right: one of Toulouse-Lautrec's madames.

The acting is marvelous, especially that of Shaw Festival veteran Mary Haney as Mrs. Warren herself, who plays a character struggling to straddle two worlds.  Early in the play, aspiring to marry her daughter to a baronet and aspiring to a place in English society, she is costumed and behaves like an English gentlewoman.  By the last scene, about to return to her life as a brothel madam, both her costume (very much like one of the garish madams in a painting by Toulouse-Lautrec) and her coarse manner is that of the brothels to which she is about to return.  The audience is persuaded that Mrs. Warren was born into the lowest ranks of London society because (thanks to the skill of Ms. Haney) her working-class accent “betrays” her at moments of high emotion (an effect prescribed by Shaw himself).

Toulouse-Lautrec's painting "At the Moulin Rouge" is owned by the Art Institute of Chicago

As Sir George Crofts, Mrs. Warren’s silent partner in the prostitution business, Benedict Campbell is appropriately revolting; our audience sighed audibly with relief when Vivie rejected his proposal.  Despite his distinguished appearance and manner, Campbell passes easily for the “brutal waster” that Vivie Warren saw him for. 

Andrew Bunker, as Vivie’s romantic interest (and possibly her half-brother), shows himself an excellent Shavian actor.  Only Moya O’Connell, as Mrs. Warren’s daughter, was not fully satisfactory.  We did not hear her as well as the other actors, and every now and then she seemed to mistake the meaning of her lines by emphasizing the wrong words.

Mrs. Warren’s Profession is one of two plays at the Shaw Festival this year with a connection to one of Emsworth’s favorite writers, Evelyn Waugh.  As I noted in an earlier post, Terrence Rattigan’s After the Dance provides a “ten years later” look at the frivolous young socialites the 1920s, the subjects of several of Waugh’s brilliant novels.  In the finest of those novels, Decline and Fall, one of the characters learns belatedly that his rich fiance, Margot Beste-Chetwynde, is actually the proprietor of a chain of brothels in South America.  Waugh must have had Kitty Warren in the back of his mind when he invented his character in Decline and Fall.

See this post for Emsworth’s review of The Stepmother at the Shaw Festival.

See this post for Emsworth’s review of the Leonard Bernstein musical Wonderful Town at the Shaw Festival.

See this post for Emsworth’s review of Bernard Shaw’s Getting Married at the Shaw Festival.

An Inspector Calls at the Shaw Festival (a review)

The Inspector Calls, playing through October at the Shaw Festival (Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario), is an ingeniously plotted classic mystery play, full of well-timed twists and turns, a sure bet for an evening’s entertainment. (I rant about this play’s strong ideological content in a separate post.) The Shaw Festival’s presentation is done well, but is not, to our mind, fully satisfying.

Emsworth previews the shows on the 2009 Shaw Festival playbill at this post.

In The Inspector Calls, the well-to-do Birling family has gathered for a dinner party to celebrate the engagement of Arthur Birling’s daughter, Sheila, to Gerald Croft. But the party is interrupted by the arrival of a man who identifies himself as Inspector Goole, and who tells the family he has just come from the morgue to ask them questions about a poor young woman who had just taken her own life.

The Birlings (Peter Hutt and Mary Haney) and Croft (Graeme Somerville) indignantly disclaim any knowledge of the girl. But as the Inspector questions them (moralizing as he goes), it becames apparent to the smug, well-to-do Birlings that they have more to do with the fate of the late Eva Smith than they thought.

Revelations follow upon revelations, and playwright J. B. Priestley feeds us just enough clues to let us guess what will unfold next. In fact, at the performance we attended, we could hear elderly, hard-of-hearing theater-goers behind us loudly whispering “I’ll bet it was really him that . . .” to their spouses during pregnant pauses in the action. At intermission, the conversation on the sidewalks outside the Festival Theater buzzed with speculation as to how it would all turn out.

It is a pleasure, year after year, to see Benedict Campbell at the Shaw Festival. What an outstanding, versatile actor! Six years ago, he was superb as Lear’s loyal follower, the Earl of Kent, at the Stratford Festival (playing with Christopher Plummer as Lear). Since then, happily, he has been at the Shaw, where, two years ago, we were genuinely moved at his and Kelli Fox’s portrayal of the the complex relationship between John and Elizabeth Proctor in The Crucible. Last year, we were astonished to see him singing and dancing up a storm in Mack and Mabel, in which, energetically and single-handedly, he set the tone for a fabulous production. We had no idea!

This year, Campbell is the Inspector in Priestley’s thriller, and he has just the solid heft and authoritative presence that the role requires. He is, in fact, so convincing as an English police detective that many in our audience seemed to have difficulty accepting the possibility that he might be something else altogether. As to that, Priestley gives the audience plenty of clues, beginning with the Inspector’s name, “Goole.” Even so, I think many left the Festival Theater genuinely baffled as to just who had been visiting the Birling family.

The set for An Inspector Calls features a large platform that rotates imperceptibly by 180 degrees during the course of the play, moving the actors and the props with it. We are to understand, I supposed, that just as the self-satisfied Birling family come to see themselves in different ways, so we the audience are also to see them from different perspectives. (As noted in my earlier post, Priestley’s objective in this play is as much to indoctrinate as it is to entertain.)

All said and done, however, the “thrill” was missing from this thriller. The revelatory moment in the last act when chills should have run up and down our spines came and went without chills. We never made any sense of a mysterious light that flitted randomly along the edges of the set. A female figure (who had no lines) appeared hazily on stage between scene changes for no apparent reason. As the Birlings, two of our very favorite actors, Peter Hutt and Mary Haney, were not permitted to demonstrate their dramatic range and left us flat.

The Shaw Festival’s artistic director, Jackie Maxwell, seems to be following the practice of her predecessor, Christopher Newton, in allocating at least one slot in a season’s playbill to something in the nature of a mystery or thriller, plays like Laura, Sorry Wrong Number, and adaptations of Agatha Christie. Here we are reminded that our very worst experience at the Shaw Festival involved a play in this slot, 2006’s disastrous The Invisible Man. The sets and the costumes were gorgeous, the special effects superb, and the acting unobjectionable. But what mediocre material the cast had to work with! This “suspense” play, in which invisible parts of Griffin’s body were revealed during the opening scene, was about as suspenseful as the slasher movies in which teenagers start getting axed in the first five minutes. Nothing built up to anything, and the Invisible Man himself was a whining johnny-one-note. We never got to know any characters well enough to care about them, and the playwright failed to introduce two important characters, Dr. Kemp and his wife, until the play was mostly over. This year’s An Inspector Calls is more like it.

Interested in reading more about J. B. Priestley’s play An Inspector Calls? See my post An Inspector Calls and old-fashioned propaganda at the Shaw Festival.

The Shaw Festival’s 2008 production of Terence Rattigan’s outstanding 1939 play After the Dance is reviewed in this post.