At the Grand Theatre, Spriet Stage, London, Ont.
Based on the novel by Wayne Johnston
Adapted for the stage by Robert Chafe
Directed by Jillian Keiley
Music composed by Patrick Boyle
Set by Shawn Kerwin
Lighting by Leigh Vardy
Sound by Don Elllis
Costimes by Marie Sharpe
Cast: Blake Carey
This is the kind of production at which the director Jillian Keiley and writer Robert Chafe excel. Every facet of the production works beautifully as a cohesive whole to tell the fascinating story of Joey Smallwood’s rise to power as the voice and driving force of Newfoundland’s joining confederation.
The Story. Joey Smallwood would not be one’s idea of a man destined for success as a leader of the people of Newfoundland. He was diminutive; people in power towered over him. He was easily convinced that people in power would reward his loyalty by allowing him to run for office in the government of Newfoundland until he learned that one of these people was running for the office Smallwood thought was his. He was often disappointed but never defeated in spirit. He persevered. He walked the length and breadth of the island getting to know the people and their concerns. He became known until finally he was instrumental in having Newfoundland officially join the Dominion of Canada in 1949.
There is a fictional character named Sheilagh Fielding a writer and wit who acts as Smallwood’s nemesis. They have a long and prickly past both adversarial and much closer. Fielding often adds context and commentary to Smallwood’s progress.
The play is divided into three Acts and spans the time between 1927 to 1949 when Newfoundland joined Confederation.
The Production. There is a beautiful symmetry to this production in which all the components of story, performance, movement, lighting, music, set and imagery all coalesce to form this magical whole.
Director Jillian Keiley has created a specific vocabulary involving movement, music, moving sets and lights to illuminate the scenes in her productions (Oil and Water, Tempting Providence, Afterimage, Fear of Flight and Metamorphoses etc.). The result is a choreographed swirl of activity which does not pull focus from the point of the scene. In The Colony of Unrequited Dreams it seems to constantly be snowing—voilá a sense of the harsh weather on that island, no matter where Smallwood is.
Patrick Boyle’s jazzy score provides a sense of urgency to the scenes without being obtrusive, no mean feat that. His music aids in giving scenes a drive and pulse. To give the sense that Smallwood and Sheilagh Fielding are often at odds there is a scene when they are sitting at their respective wood desks facing each other, Their desks and chairs are on wheels and they circle around the room with their desks facing and touching each other, as one if one is pushing the other desk along as it circles the stage. In these instances Keiley creates such a clear, vivid image.
Colin Furlong plays Joey Smallwood and while he is not tall of stature, has the grit that Smallwood would have needed to withstand all the disappointments he did. Furlong presents a wonderfully flawed man. At times Smallwood is faced with difficult dilemma and decisions that would show what kind of stuff he was made of. Often Smallwood is portrayed as a weak, morally challenged man, albeit with passion for his island and the people. Then there are those wonderful moments when Furlong portrays Smallwood’s tenacity, his anger and his ability to stare down his adversaries.
Sheilagh Fielding for the purposes of Robert Chafe’s play is one adversary that Smallwood has difficulty winning against. Certainly as played wonderfully by Carmen Grant one could see why Smallwood had such a hard time against her. Carmen Grant’s Sheilagh is considerably taller than Smallwood. She is willowy. She stands with a slight slant because Fielding had a limp and often walked with a cane. Carmen Grant presents a rather imposing picture. And the wit of her! Lordy, lordy. Sheilagh Fielding lobs her bon mots with the ease of flicking a feather in the air. The barbs are precisely place, beautifully economical and deadly. Carmen Grant delivers them with a lilting, honey coated voice and just the hint of a sarcastic, pleased-with-herself-smile. Carmen Grant is so sublime in this role one laments she hasn’t done more work in these parts more often.
Robert Chafe’s writing is clean, spare, poetic and vivid in describing the story of this most unlikely of leaders. Chafe captures the smarmy condescension of all the people who came from away to govern the island and put down Smallwood but the writing also shows the spunk and tenacity of Smallwood. Chafe’s writing is so good one naturally wants to read the source material written by Wayne Johnston.
Comment. I was so glad to see this production at the Grand Theatre in London, Ont. A trip to London is a small price to pay to see a production this good.
An Artistic Fraud Production.
From: March 15, 2017.
To: April 8, 2017.
Saw it: March 18, 2017.
Cast: 12; 8 men, 4 women
Running Time: 2 hours, 45 minutes.