At the Royal George Theatre, Shaw Festival, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.

Written by Brian Friel
Directed by Krista Jackson
Designed by Sue LePage
Lighting by Louise Guinand
Original music and sound by John Gzowski
Cast: Christopher Bowman
Fiona Byrne
Diana Donnelly
Patrick Galligan
Claire Jullien
Peter Millard
Sarena Parmar
Tara Rosling

A delicate ache of a play that is beautifully directed and acted. I would see this one again in a heartbeat.

The Story. It’s August, 1936, Ireland in the fictional town of Ballybeg, in the cottage of the five Mundy sisters—Christina, Maggie, Agnes, Rose, Kate—and Michael, Christina’s seven year old son.

Kate, the oldest, is a schoolteacher and the only one with a job. She is a matter-of-fact woman who rules the roost. Rose is a grown woman who is developmentally delayed but has a sense of independence but not the firm grasp of it. She needs to be taken care of to see that she doesn’t get in harm’s way. She and her sister Agnes make extra money by knitting gloves that they sell in the village. They both help their sister Maggie tend the house. Maggie has no income so tending the house is her way of paying her dues. She is lively, irreverent, funny, but hides deep emotions. Christina is the only one who really seems to have had a relationship with a man, Gerry, and the result was Michael. Gerry is an unreliable, care-free man who goes from job to job. He is affectionate to Michael but a disappointment. He makes promises that he breaks all the time.

The sisters’ brother Jack went to Uganda 25 years before as a missionary to work a leper colony. He comes home sick with malaria and he’s obviously changed. He seems to have turned his back on his Catholic teachings.

The adult Michael narrates what happens in the story regarding his aunts and father, tells us of their future and even gives voice to his seven-year-old-self as he interacts with his aunts.

The Production. Designer Sue LePage has created the outline of the small cottage where the five Mundy sister and Michael live. There are a few worn chairs around the kitchen, an old, unreliable radio up by one chair, an old stove where Maggie cooks across and up from the radio, outside at the back is an incline from stage right up to stage left and off. There are flowers too and in the front is a barren yard really where Michael plays (if only in the adult Michael’s retelling).

Director Krista Jackson has done a lovely job of realizing Brian Friel’s delicate, loving play. She illuminates its beating heart with fastidiousness to detail. It is a production as delicate and detailed as fine Irish lace. Jackson has created a familiar ‘choreography’ for the sisters as they negotiate their way around the space and each other. There is the conspiratorial nattering amongst the sisters regarding Kate. She is the oldest, the one who makes money and buys the groceries and the one who is in control of that family. You get a sense of Kate’s firm control over her sisters as well as a sense of fatigue and drudgery in Fiona Byrne’s nuanced performance. Money is always a worry and she knows it more than the others. That can ground a person down and it’s clear in this performance. Every cent is accounted for and every effort is made to buy what they need. Kate frets, scolds, gives directives and runs that family, but you are never in doubt that that attitude is informed by love because of Byrne’s lovely performance.

Rose is impetuous, confident in her own way, but not as mature as she should be, but Diana Donnelly plays her with such life that it’s not immediately apparent that Rose is developmentally delayed. When she rushes off to secretly meet a man the sisters become immediately concerned and so do we, as Rose’s secrets are gradually revealed.

Christina meets Gerry for one of his infrequent visits, Sarena Parmar as Christina is clearly still in love with this charming, disappointing man, but knows in her heart that he will leave her hurting. Parmar gives a lovely performance of one who trusts but knows it will end badly. Kristopher Bowman is a charming, awkward Gerry. He’s not a bad man, he’s just lacking in character and a moral compass. As Maggie, Tara Rosling provides the humour and irreverence that family needs. She is good natured but Rosling shows us a woman who has deep still waters and is watchful of the rest of her family. Agnes and Rose are almost inseparable. They knit together and Agnes takes care of Rose. Claire Jullien plays Agnes with a concerned edge; she is Rose’s defender if she feels Rose is being slighted. There is almost an urgency in Agnes’s knitting, that it’s important to make money from this simple task. We are told by Michael later in the play Agnes will make a stunning decision regarding her and Rose. We see hints of that determination and desperation in Jullien’s performance. Peter Millard plays a fragile, confused Father Jack. Over seeing all this activity, from the point of view of a loving memory, is the adult Michael. Patrick Galligan plays him with the tenderness of a man who knows the sacrifices of those sisters. It’s not a gaze that is sentimental but one that is tenderly matter of fact.

There is a scene in which the sisters are taken out of their dreary lives. One of the sisters turns on the radio and miraculously it works. A rousing Irish reel (I believe) is playing. Four of the sisters, but not Kate, give over to the music, dancing and swaying to it. Eventually Kate can’t resist. Fiona Burn as Kate fairly quivers with the intoxicating music until she bursts into the most liberating, freeing Irish step dance—she loses her usual control and lets the music take over. Fiona Byrne has created the Irish Dance Sequences for the production. In another life Ms Byrne was a champion Step Dancer. It’s obvious here. When the music ends the sisters breathlessly return to their ‘regular’ lives, almost embarrassed at experiencing this fleeting joy. Wonderful, poignant scene.

Comment. Playwright Brian Friel writes with a loving poetic lyricism. The play is based on the lives of his aunts. All his plays are full of his gentle, considerate observations and there is an ache. He writes about the thorny issues of family, poverty, desperation, respect, consideration, trying to do better and love. This is a lovely production. I’m eager to see it again.

Presented by the Shaw Festival.

Began: May 14, 2017.
Saw it: June 23, 2017.
Closes: Oct. 15, 2017.
Cast: 8; 3 men, 5 women
Running Time: 2 hours.


Confederation and Riel 1861-1870

At the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, Distillery District, Toronto, Ont.

Written and Co-directed by Michael Hollingsworth
Co-directed by Deanne Taylor
Lighting by Andrew Dollar
Costumes by Astrid Janson and Melanie McNeill
Wigs by Alice Norton
Sound and additional music by Richard Feren
Props and video drawing by Brad Harley
Music by Brent Snyder
Cast: Kevin Bundy
Greg Campbell
Richard Alan Campbell
Jamie Cavanagh
Richard Clarkin
Kat Letwin
Linda Prystawska
Michaela Washburn

The nefarious goings on in Canadian history around Louis Riel, Confederation and the scandals created by John A. Macdonald get the VideoCabaret treatment and it’s a hoot.

Michael Hollingsworth and co-creator Deanne Taylor created VideoCabaret to tell Canada’s history in a zippy, punchy, irreverent way for folks brought up on TV and rock and roll. The latest segment is the story of Canada and confederation and in two parts.

The Stories:

Part I is Confederation and Riel 1861-1870 and Part II is Scandal and Rebellion, 1871-1885.

These two segments are part of a larger history of Canada called The History of the Village of the Small Huts from its very beginnings right up to modern times.

Confederation and Riel 1861-1870

John A. Macdonald and Georges Etiennes-Cartier, co-premiers of The Canadas, which at that time were Ontario and Quebec. They want more territory and power and use any means to get it.

Louis Riel is a Metis studying for the priesthood. But when he sees that his people and their land in Manitoba are threatened by the Americans and also by Macdonald and company, he forgets his studies to lead his people to defend their land and rights. Riel becomes a formidable leader and spokesperson with the government. Thus he is a threat to Macdonald who uses underhanded means to get rid of Riel.

Scandal and Rebellion 1871-1885.

Macdonald, now Prime Minister, continues to make questionable deals. He woos British Columbia into Confederation by promising them a railway. There’s a scandal regarding contracts for the railway being swapped for campaign contributions. Macdonald is caught in the lie and deposed. Riel is still around and the elected member of Manitoba but is prevented from taking his seat in parliament. Matters escalate and Riel has to flee to Montana for his life. It’s a picture of fortunes that rise and fall as the scandals escalate. As committed and noble his intentions were, it ends badly for Louis Riel. John A. Macdonald doesn’t seem to realize how bad anything is because he’s mainly drinking his days away.

The Productions. VideoCabaret has a particular style in presenting its shows. The action takes place in a black box (like a television) with a few levels to it. Scenes are no more than one minute or less so all the information, tone, attitudes etc. have to be packed in with wit, irony and sarcasm and still tell the story in a way that grabs the audience. Deliberately cheesy music underscores each scene (as in old TV shows) and music plays during the blackouts that separate scenes. The makeup, wigs, costumes and props are exaggerated in design and size. For example, John A. Macdonald’s bottle, from which he guzzles his liquor, is as long as his arm. Each of the eight actors in the cast plays multiple parts. They change costumes, wigs and props off stage in the blink of an eye.

The whole cast is wonderfully accomplished with their own quirks and sensibilities but to give you a taste: Richard Clarkin plays John A. Macdonald with a smirk and a subtle slur to the words because of course John A. was a drunk.

Linda Prystawska is an attentive Lady Agnes Macdonald who tries to take the bottle away from her drunken husband; She also plays a flirty woman on the make, and some male politicians with total believability.

Michaela Washburn plays Louis Riel with a curvy wig and a moustache and is so regal, gentlemanly, and controlled you have nothing but admiration for the character.

While the cast is wonderful the masters of ceremonies are writer Michael Hollingsworth who wrote the cycle of plays and his partner Deanne Taylor who co-directs them. Together they have provided the funniest, best history lesson about this country you will ever have.

Comment. I’ve seen all the components of The History of the Village of the Small Huts configured in various ways and I never get tired of seeing this company because playwright and co-director, Michael Hollingsworth, has such a sharp eye for the focus of a scene and what he wants to convey in it. He sees the mendacity, corruption, arrogance, and dishonesty in the politicians, and uses the sharpest wit to bring that out. Sometimes it’s a subtle reaction from a character to something startling, just as the lights are going down, that adds that final zing. Hollingsworth in his plays is the best chronicler of the story of Canada you will find.

Soulpepper presents VideoCabaret

Plays until August 19, 2017.


At the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, Distillery District, Toronto, Ont.

Written by Vern Thiessen
Directed by Diana Leblanc
Set by Astrid Janson
Costumes by Shannon Lea Doyle
Lighting by André du Toit
Sound by John Gzowski
Co-sound designer, Deanna Choi
Cast: Sébastien Bertrand
Andrew Chown
Tim Dowler-Coltman
Wesley French
Christine Horne
TJ Riley

Playwright Vern Thiessen and director Diana Leblanc have created a gripping, moving production about the terrible effects of war, in particular the Battle of Vimy Ridge.

The Story. In his program note playwright Vern Thiessen says Vimy is not about war. It’s about the relationships of four men, who are a cross-section of Canada, who took part in the Battle of Vimy Ridge in WWI. One is a French Canadian, is an aboriginal from Winnipeg, two are friends who are gay but one of them does not acknowledge it. There is a nurse named Claire and her boyfriend Will. I don’t think it’s simplistic for Thiessen to have a representative of various groups of Canada to represent the country’s diversity. It’s a valid choice. And of course at its heart Vimy is about the war and what it does to young men and women who just want to do right by their country.

The Production. Four men lay in a hospital with their various injuries, both physical and mental from the Battle of Vimy Ridge. Jean-Pau Bert (Sébastien Bertrand) is shattered with shell-shock. He’s been gassed. Initially he doesn’t speak, but when he is shown kindness by a nurse named Clare (Christine Horne) he begins to speak to her, in French, which eventually segues to English. Mike (Wesley French) is from the First Nations. He’s been gassed and his breathing is terribly affected. He feels slighted by the rest of the men and seems to be ready for a fight if he’s looked at strangely. Will (JT Riley) has been shot up. Sid (Tim Dowler-Coltman) has also been shot up. His eyes are covered to protect them from further damage. Sid knows Will but Will ignores him. They both are suppressing a secret that is heartbreaking.

Clare is their Canadian nurse and Laurie (Andrew Chown) is her Canadian boyfriend who enlists.

We learn of their histories, how they are coping, how they hope to be shipped home soon because of their wounds. They talk of their injuries and what happened. The play flits back and forth in time from before some joined up to the present, but we are never in doubt as to where we are.

Gradually Vern Thiessen leads up to what led them to that hospital, The Battle of Vimy Ridge and the horrible odds that were against these young men when they were ordered to go to the top and take it. The men count down the hours to the beginning of the battle.

It is very gripping playwriting because establishing their stories is more important than the battle, which happens in the last quarter of the play.

The cast is exemplary. Relationships are created and developed with meticulous attention to detail. Sébastien Bertrand, as Jean-Paul Bert, is skittish, haunted and almost paralyzed with the shock of the war. As Sid, Tim Dowler-Coltman is a strapping man with a sense of the sensitivity of Sid. Sid longs for Will’s friendship but is rebuffed. But in their earlier time there is a tenderness to their friendship. Will hides a secret as Sid does, but Will struggles with his secret. He knows he is being cruel; he realizes the cost too late. As Will, JT Riley infuses his characterization with the subtlest of details. There is nothing cut and dried in this macho performance. As Laurie, Andrew Chown is all bravado and swagger to show off to Clare, his girlfriend. Christine Horne plays Clare with professionalism to try and hide how she knows how damaged these men are, and that some will not be going home. Her reaction to some bad news squeezes the heart.

Diana Leblanc directed this wonderful production with the intent of showing the stark, primitive surroundings these men had to cope with and the effect on them. Their lives in the hospital are far away to some extent from the noise and terror of the war. But there is always a hint of the awful outside and the war in this thoughtful production. Initially we hear the delicate tapping of the rain on the roof. Much is made of the resulting mud, in which a man could drown in both the rain and the mud. Later when the rain subsides, we hear birds. It’s almost as if one can’t give over to the peace of the quiet. One is always waiting for the blast of a bomb.

The set by Astrid Janson has the men in the hospital sleeping on slabs of wood, not beds, to show how everything in their lives is uncomfortable. A mist hangs in the air suggesting constant rain or gas floating to suffocate them. Shannon Lea Doyle’s costumes are stuffy soldier’s uniforms, worn boots, dirty socks. Clare’s uniform is bloody from tending to wounded soldiers. André du Toit’s lighting is eerie, constantly dark and oppressive to the men who are wounded.

The battle of Vimy Ridge is gripping as it gradually builds and builds in intensity to the inevitable.

Comment. The Battle of Vimy Ridge was more than 100 years ago. Does it have relevance to us today? On the basis of the play and this stunning production, I say definitely yes. Thiessen’s play has put us in the world of the story, of war, talking about the toll it took on these young men and women. This is a war these men thought was justified. They were defending freedom for their country and felt it their duty to sign up.

They suffered more with that war than any other since because it was so primitive and the conditions were hideous: the mud and rain could kill you; there was gas and had little protection from it; they were outnumbered but were still sent in to fight.

On viewing Vimy you are put in that terrible world even though it is far and away from ours and because we can understand the realities of all those characters, I think that makes it relevant.

In a way, it’s not about war as Thiessen says, but about the relationships these men had to each other; the slights they endured, the loneliness, the realization that they were pawns; that war was futile and brutal. You feel what these people experienced because you are put in that world momentarily.

Produced by Soulpepper Theatre Company

Plays until Aug. 5, 2017.


At the Studio Theatre, Stratford Festival, Stratford, Ont.

Written by Kate Hennig
Directed by Alan Dilworth
Designed by Yannik Larivée
Lighting by Kimberly Purtell
Sound by Alexander MacSween
Cast: Nigel Bennett
Laura Condlln
Sara Farb
Brad Hodder
Yanna McIntosh
André Morin
Bahia Watson

An intriguing continuation to Kate Hennig’s trilogy of plays about the Tudors. Alas I found Bahia Watson’s delivery as Bess to be too rapid fire with little heart, mind and nuance.

The Story. This is the second of three plays about The Tudors. Last year we saw The Last Wife, about Katherine Parr, the last wife of Henry VIII and his two daughters, Elizabeth (Bess) and Mary.

The Virgin Trial is about the political and sexual intrigue surrounding Princess Elizabeth referred to as Bess, who is now 15 and whip smart politically—she was well taught. Bess may or may not be romantically involved with Thom, the Lord High Admiral and husband to her step-mother, Katherine Parr. Bess flirts with Thom and he returns the attention. There is also the fact that Thom might be involved in a plot to overthrow the government. So Bess is summoned to be interviewed about this by Ted, the Lord Protector to Edward VI, Elizabeth’s brother. Ted is also Thom’s brother. Matters get a bit sticky with all this intrigue. Bess is desperate to keep her name pristine, so even for one so young she is wily in manoeuvring her way around court and interrogation.

The Production. As with The Last Wife, The Virgin Trial takes place in the time of the Tudors but is performed in modern dress and everything else: language, attitudes and themes, are contemporary.

Yannik Larivée’s set is simple and spare. A curtain hangs upstage and depending on Kimberly Purtell’s lighting we can either see through it to view what’s on the other side or the curtain is dark and we see nothing on the other side. There is a wood rectangular table with two chairs, one on either side of the width of it.

Bess (Bahia Watson) sits at the table. Her hair is pulled back in a tight formation. She wears a colourful dress appropriate for a fifteen-year-old, and flat shoes. Her hands are folded in her lap. She waits.

Eleanor, a lady of the court, arrives and places some files on the table with a sense of declaration. As played by Yanna McIntosh, Eleanor is irritated. She has a tight look on her face. She wears a black form-fitting coat, under which is a skirt (?) black tights and thigh-high boots with stiletto heels. This woman is formidable. She flips open a writing pad and flicks a ballpoint pen to get the tip to write. She asks Bess questions with an edge. Bess wants some tea. Eleanor says they only have water. This is a battle of wills between two strong women.

Bess of course is to the manor born. She was primed in court by her father, Henry VIII and her stepmother Katherine Parr. As Bess, Bahia Watson has bearing and the attitude of one born into royalty. She has that smugness of a teenager who has a sense of entitlement. She enunciates her words crisply. It’s just that I don’t believe a word she says. Her dialogue is given in a staccato rapid fire like a machine gun, without variation in tone, pace or nuance. Everybody around her is watchful, reactive, listens, hears and assesses. You can see it in their eyes and faces. Bahia Watson focuses on who is talking but every reply is a response and not quite a true reaction to what is being said or thrown at her. While listening her face is a blank. Perhaps this is how we are to believe a royal behaves? But does it not follow the others at court would do the same?

In contrast, Yanna McIntosh as Eleanor is imperious, cold, formidable and quietly threatening. Just with a flick of her eyes you can see the brains working, assessing. Formidable in a different way is Nigel Bennett, the Protector of Edward VI and the interrogator of Bess. He is jokey, quietly supportive, and lethal when he goes in for the kill with Bess. He knows how to keep his head, both literally and figuratively. He is also ruthless. He orders people who work for Bess to be tortured and he seems to relish it.

As Mary, Sarah Farb is wonderfully calculating and cool. She is perpetually bored with what is going on but knows how to play the game, and certainly helps Bess when she needs it most. As before, it’s directed with efficiency and care by Alan Dilworth.

With any good mystery we wonder will Bess be broken and bested by Ted and Eleanor who appear to be more ruthless and wily that Bess is, or are they. It’s fascinating watching as the characters shift and manoeuvre and manipulate.

Comment. Playwright Kate Hennig is a wonderful, perceptive, vibrant writer. She uses Bess’s story to comment on such contemporary subjects as consent, coercion, political will and manoeuvring. And Hennig is such a gifted writer that she has fashioned The Virgin Trial like a political thriller and a mystery. And while I do have problems with Bahia Watson as Bess, others might not. Acting is such a personal thing. Therefore I am recommending The Virgin Trial because it’s a splendid play and production

Produced by the Stratford Festival.

Began: June 7, 2017.
Saw it: July 18, 2017.
Closes: Sept. 23, 2017.
Cast: 7; 3 men, 4 women
Running Time: 2 hours 20 minutes approx.


At the Court House Theatre, Shaw Festival, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.

Written by Bernard Shaw
Directed by Tim Carroll
Designed by Dana Osborne
Lighting by Kimberly Purtell
Dance sequences and puppetry by Alexis Milligan
Music direction and original music by Paul Sportelli
Cast: Neil Barclay
Kyle Blair
Julia Course
Kristi Frank
Patrick Galligan
Élodie Gillett
Jeff Irving
Patty Jamieson
Sarena Parmar
Jacqueline Thair
Michael Therriault
Jay Turvey
Jenny L. Wright
Shawn Wright

A valiant, committed cast tries to lift this dumbed-down, misguided production that does little to serve Shaw’s play.

The Story. Androcles and the Lion is a fable about goodness, faith and a lion who never forgets a kindness. Androcles and his whining wife Megaera are on a jungle path. They are arguing. She’s tired and pampered and wants to stop walking. He is considerate but they need to get to the next village before nightfall. They have been hounded out of their home for religious reasons. She is fed up and attempts to leave but stumbles on a lion that is sleeping. The stumble wakes it. The Lion is suffering from a thorn in its paw. And since Androcles loves all animals almost better than people, he takes the thorn out of the paw and gives comfort to the Lion. All is well and they part. But then Androcles and others are captured and taken to Rome where they will either be fed to the lions or forced into combat in the Coliseum. Interestingly Androcles and his wife seem to have become separated along the way. When he is captured, she is nowhere to be found.

The Production. Before the production proper begins the cast individually and casually come out and chat up people in the audience. They introduce themselves; find out who they are and how they are, why they might have chosen that play; how their day has gone. Some actors hold a coloured ball in their hand. If the audience member wants to be involved in the action of the play, he/she is given a coloured ball. There are five coloured balls.

After this up close and personal stuff the cast move away from the audience, form a circle looking inwards (centre stage) and sing a hymn. Then the person who has been chosen to be the MC for the performance (Julia Course in my performance) explains the rules of the games with the balls etc.

Those in the audience with a ball could throw it on stage any time during the play. The colour of the ball indicates a different result. A certain colour (can’t remember which one and it doesn’t matter) means the cast will sing a hymn; another colour means a cast member will recite a portion of the Preface or the Epilogue to the play; another coloured ball means a cast member will tell a story that pertains to that performance and another colour means a cast member will tell the audience what he/she is thinking at the moment the ball is tossed on the stage. The last ball is special and is a lightening round of the actors commenting.

When an audience member with a coloured ball tosses the ball on stage, the play is interrupted and depending on the colour of the ball, the action is taken (either the cast sings a hymn—they learned nine of them—tell a story pertaining to the play, tell what they are thinking…..). When that action is completed the play continues.

An accommodating person in the audience is chosen to play the Lion. And finally the audience is asked to choose how a pathway in the jungle should be constructed: with benches or something else (I’ve blanked on what the other thing was). The audience chooses benches. The cast set up benches in a zig-zaggy manner representing the path on which Androcles and his lady-wife are walking. Once this is done the ‘production’ finally begins.

As with other Tim Carroll directed productions the house lights in the theatre are generally ‘up’ so that the audience and the cast can see each other. When Carroll was at Stratford for a few seasons he explained that having the lights up referenced ‘original practices’ of producing theatre as in Shakespeare’s day. (What this has to do with Shaw is a mystery, but I digress).

The MC reads the stage directions and the rest of the cast play the parts. The stage directions are important for the part of the Lion (who has no lines) because that part is all stage directions (put up a paw; lick the paw etc.), with perhaps a growl or two. In the production I saw an accommodating man from the audience named John played the Lion with focus and creative attention to the stage directions.

I am grateful for every single actor in this production. No matter how large or small the part, these actors instil every second of their characterizations with commitment, focus and creativity. As Androcles, Patrick Galligan is the most courtly, considerate accommodating husband to his hectoring wife Megaera (Jenny L. Wright). He is coaxing, gently urging and patient with this impossible woman. With the Lion he’s caring as well, even though Shaw has him talking in baby-talk to the creature. As Megaera, Jenny L. Wright plays her with finesse and not with knock-down aggression. There is always subtlety in Wright’s work and her characters are vivid because of it. Besides being the MC, Julia Course plays Lavinia a Christian prisoner who is regal, intellectual and charms a Roman Captain of the guards played with sombre seriousness by Kyle Blair. The banter between these two opposites is wary but the attraction between them is obvious. Ferrovius is a Christian with a gladiator’s sensibility. Jeff Irving plays him with a ferocity that he tries in vain to keep in check. It’s a performance that is startling and hilarious.

It is jarring when a ball is gently tossed on stage. The flow of the performance is interrupted while the cast puts its attention on the ball—do they sing a hymn…? Who ever has to contend with the ball shifts gears momentarily and puts all his/her focus into dealing with that interruption. This too is done almost seamlessly and then they return to the play. Whether the audience can shift gears so easily and then get back to the nuts and bolts of the play is a different matter.

One must ask how does this ball tossing, games playing enhance the play or the experience of watching it? How does Mr. Carroll think this serves the playwright? Answer: It doesn’t. If anything it stops the action and the story telling and diminishes the play, as if what Shaw has to say is irrelevant. This is community theatre or rehearsal hall games at best.

As I said the saving grace of this misguided, badly thought out production of course is the cast. They will always rise to the occasion and try and make sense of the director’s folly. They will do it with commitment, good will, talent, understanding and grace. Bless them.

Comment. Director Tim Carroll has written a program note in which he muses on and assumes Bernard Shaw’s intentions and purposes with respect to Androcles and the Lion. Carroll’s assumptions and conclusions are so mind-boggling in their misrepresentation they illuminate how this production could have gone so far off the rails.

Carroll says: “Bernard Shaw seems to have rejoiced in the genre-busting nature of Androcles and the Lion. In it, he mixes romantic comedy, social satire, political commentary, religious rumination, children’s pantomime and vaudevillian slapstick. He says to the audience, in effect, “you sort it out”.


Shaw never left anything so important as his meaning, intention, purpose or anything else up to the vagaries of the audience. All one need do is look at his extensive stage directions describing in detail everything from the look of the set to the colour of a character’s eyes to realize that. Then there are the extensive prefaces that discourse on aspects, philosophies and theories in his plays. The preface for Androcles and the Lion is twice as long as the play itself! Shaw is known for his deep, dense plays with a philosophical message and Androcles and the Lion is no different. It’s funny and charming but Shaw riffs on faith, religion, Christianity, piety, honour, forgiveness etc. in the work.

Tim Carroll writes further: “I hope we have taken up the challenge of staging the play in the spirit of Shaw himself….I believe the deepest way we can carry on Shaw’s work is to make theatre a kind of two-way experience, he believed it should be. Thus we will constantly involve the audience—though no one will ever be put on the spot or cajoled.”


If Mr. Carroll has misinterpreted Shaw’s mixing of genres to “you sort it out,” doesn’t it follow that he would not know what ‘the spirit of Shaw himself’ was in order to stage the play? It seems so.

I have to wonder what Mr. Carroll thinks the audience is doing when they watch a play if not to be involved, ‘experiencing’ and engaging in the play.

This is what the audience does in a play, Shaw’s or otherwise: after they have made the commitment to being there, buying the ticket at considerable expense in this case and often travelling long distances on lousy roads: they sit facing the stage and listen, hear, see, watch, look, ponder, weight and assess the arguments presented by the characters; they judge the characters as good or bad conveyers of the playwright’s message; they decide if the argument is sound or not; they evaluate the acting, and the application of the play to their own lives, and they do it as they are keenly, carefully involved audiences in the play. And they also have to remember to breathe and swallow.

What in the world is Tim Carroll thinking when he thinks he has to do more to involve the audience? This is not a production in the spirit of Shaw. It’s a production that hasn’t been thought through by a director who has misinterpreted the writing of the playwright.

In an interview with me on CIUT FRIDAY MORNING, 89.5 fm June 2, 2017, Mr. Carroll said that Shaw’s aim in his plays was to entertain. I regret I didn’t challenge him on that and ask for his definition of ‘entertain.’ Some people are entertained by a silly farce or glitzy musical. Some are entertained by a good production of King Lear where everyone dies. A few get their jollies by reading Schopenhauer.

I only have Shaw’s words to know that what he wanted to do was to educate, instruct, hector, lecture, philosophise to, dictate to and inform his audiences before anything else, humour notwithstanding. As for Tim Carroll’s assumption that Shaw wanted to ‘entertain’, that seems to be dispelled in the scholarly essay by Michel Pharand in the same Androcles and the Lion program for the Shaw Festival as Mr. Carroll’s piece. In it Mr. Pharand notes an interview with Bernard Shaw September 2, 1913, the day after the opening in London of Androcles and the Lion, in which Shaw complained about all the laughter of the audience. It went on so long and loud it extended the performance from 70 minutes to 95 minutes. You say Shaw wanted to entertain, Mr. Carroll? Not bloody likely.

Presented by the Shaw Festival

Began: June 6, 2017.
Closes: Oct. 7, 2017.
Cast: 14; 7, men, 7 women
Running Time: 1 hour, 55 minutes to 2 hours 20 minutes.

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S.C.U.M. A Manifesto.

At Hamilton Theatre Inc. 140 McNab St. N, Hamilton, Ont.

Written and performed by S.E. Grummett and Caitlin Zacharias
Directed by Danielle Spilchen

A wild, sprawling, irreverent examination of the feminist movement, body politics and image using the story of Valerie Solanas and her involvement with Andy Warhol.

From the info card for the show: “In 1967, Valerie Solanas wrote the radically feminist S.C.U.M. Manifesto: Society for Cutting Up Men,” which suggested that in order for women to be truly liberated, they must overthrow the government and kill all men. S.C.U.M. Manifesto is a look inside the mind of the woman who shot Andy Warhol and a dark satire of the feminist movement today.”

Writers/performers S.E. Grummett and Caitlin Zacharias play two women taking a feminist class who are stumped on what to do for their class project. One of them discovers the S.C.U.M Manifesto in the library and goes from there. They both play the students and Valerie Solanas and Andy Warhol. The students banter about the boring class, their relationships, expectations with men, frustrations etc.

The performances are lively, fearless, angry, and irreverent. One might be lost if you aren’t familiar with the S.C.U.M. Manifesto or Valerie Salanas. The segue from being the students to being Salanas and Warhol in 1967 is not quite clear. It would have been really helpful to have a proper program with the writers/performers’ names on it. That said, this Saskatoon company has a lot to say and a clever way of saying it.

Continues at the Hamilton Fringe until July 30, 2017.


At Artword Artbar, 15 Colbourne St., Hamilton, Ont.

Written and directed by Sky Gilbert
Based on the novels of Colette
Lyrics by Sky Gilbert
Music by Dustin Peters
Set by Stephen Newman
Lighting by Judith Sandiford
Cast: Peggy Mahon
Dustin Peters.

Lea is an old courtesan who is discoursing on her life and loves. Cheri is her new accompanist. He warns her he does not want any surprises. She seems surprised at this. She sounds him out. She flirts. She has his eye on her. He’s wary.

Does one have to be familiar with the novels of Colette and in particular the one entitled Cheri about an old courtesan and her younger lover known as ‘Cheri’? Perhaps, for some context.

While writer/director Sky Gilbert writes about the profession of being a courtesan which is a bit better (but still the same) as a prostitute, Gilbert does suggest one is more genteel than the other. He writes about aging, love, a relationship of a young man and an older woman and the importance of being coy and alluring, no matter the age.

At 50 minutes the play seems slight. Perhaps another pass at it will bring more depth and discovery. Peggy Mahon plays Lea, a stylish, confident older woman and Dustin Peters plays the attractive pianist referred to as Cheri. I would love to have heard the words of his various songs, but they were drowned out by his lively piano playing.

It continues at Artword Artbar until July 30

Elephant Girls

At the Staircase, 27 Dundurn St. N, Hamilton, Ont.

Written and performed by Margo MacDonald.
Directed by Mary Ellis
Costumes by Vanessa Imeson

“The bloody tale of the all-women gang that terrorized London” in the early 1900s.

Maggie Hale is our narrator/guide into this underworld gang of women. We are in a pub and there are at least five glasses of beer that Maggie will be drinking during the telling. Five glasses of beer (one already consumed); this is a woman with issues. She wears a three piece man’s suit, white shirt with cufflinks, with a tightly tied tie, smart pocket puff, a fedora and gleaming ox-blood coloured brogues. Maggie became associated with the Elephant Girls, a gang of 40 women in the early 1900s in London, England. They would go into smart women’s shops and steal merchandise that was then fenced for lots of money. Fifteen minutes work to make a fortune. Crime sure pays.

Maggie drove the getaway car. She became associated with the gang leader Diamond Alice and a relationship formed. Alice suggested Maggie dress as a man to give her a cover when driving the car. Maggie found she liked dressing as a man and realized she liked women better than men.

Margo MacDonald’s writing is bracing, vivid, sharply-observed and puts you in that rough and tumble world of London in the early 1900s. And what a subject, a gang of 40 women. Because they were centred in the area of London known as the Elephant and Castle the gang was called the Elephant Girls.

As a performer, MacDonald is so compelling. She strikes a confident pose in that fastidious suit and fedora. For her performance as Maggie Hale, Margo MacDonald has assumed a tight Cockney accent complete with slang. You are never in the dark as to the meaning. MacDonald gives nuance and shading to this performance and she is always compelling to watch.

Elephant Girls is one show you must see at the Hamilton Fringe because Margo MacDonald is such a gifted writer and performer.

It continues until July 30 at The Staircase Theatre, 27 Dundurn St. N.


At 4th Line Theatre, Millbrook, Ont.

Written by David S. Craig
Directed by David Ferry
Lyrics and original composition by David S. Craig
Musical direction and original composition by Justin Hiscox
Costumes by Karyn McCallum
Set and Props by Glenn Davidson
Choreography by Monica Dottor
Cast: Michael Cox
Colin Doyle
Shaina Silver-Baird
Matt Gilbert
Erin Humphry
Deb Williams
Robert Winslow
And many others.

A deeply moving, emotional look at the fly-boys of WWII, their bravery, their families and how the experience affected them years later. Beautifully written by David S. Craig and directed by David Ferry.

The Story. Peter Benton (Robert Winslow) is 94, from Peterborough. He lives with his daughter Margaret. He sits in a wheelchair and is bitter about so many things mainly about his time in WWII when he was a young pilot on a bomber plane. He won’t tell Margaret anything about that time.

Kate Richie is a young British woman who comes to Canada seeking an interview with Peter. She’s doing her PHD on WWII and Peter is the last of his crew who is still alive. At first he refuses, but then slowly he begins telling her how he enlisted at 18 and was piloting a bomber when he was 20 in England. It was daunting but he did it.

It’s a story of steely resolve, loyalty, carrying for one’s men, being daring but not reckless and growing up fast.

The Production. Director David Ferry creates a production as huge and sprawling in scale as David S. Craig’s script. There is sweep and size in both the play and the production. David Ferry has staged various aerial ‘dog-fights’ as Peter and his crew try to bomb sites over Germany and in the air fighting enemy planes. One in particular is nothing short of gripping. Several ‘fly boys’ hold a large model of a Lancaster (I believe) plane above their heads. Others carry the wings that fit into the body of the plane. They then manoeuvre the plane in choreographed movement above their heads, as twenty-year-old Sgt. Peter “Petey” Benton (Michael Cox) describes the various harrowing aspects of that mission (attacked by the enemy; engines blown out; rocky flying; a severely wounded man on board and Petey would not sacrifice that young man, instead, he risked life and limb to get the wounded young man to the mainland and a hospital.)

As with all the productions at 4th Line Theatre the company of actors is a mix of community actors and professionals mainly from Toronto. The action takes place in and around the barnyard of Winslow Farm, the home of 4th Line Theatre. Characters scurry across the yard and around the barn; action happens on the upper level of the barn, in the field over there; citizens march smartly for a ceremony or other. Monica Dottor has choreographed lively dances for the company. David Ferry keeps the pace going quickly and ensuring that the level of acting, whether professional or not, is of a high standard.

As the elder Peter Benton, Robert Winslow is brusque, irritated and ornery. He is tended with infinite patience but occasionally a touch of frustration by his loyal daughter Margaret, a focused Deb Williams. Michael Cox is a dashing, confident Petey Benton. Colin Doyle plays Danny O’Neil who is that goofy, good-natured, true friend you always want around you. Shaina Silver-Baird plays Emma Ross, Petey’s reticent girlfriend, who is sweet, sassy and fearful of losing him. Erin Humphry plays Kate Richie, the attentive, tenacious PHD student with a secret of her own.

A gripping story of young men and women believing in their country, willing to make the supreme sacrifice.

Comment. David S. Craig got the idea for Bombers: Reaping the Whirlwind from one of his friends who did fight in the war. David Ferry brought his own family history—his parents were caught up in WWII—to the project and the result is a thoughtful, very funny, moving play and production about bravery and friendship. It leaves you with lots to think about and much more to be grateful for.

Produced by 4th Line Theatre.

Began: July 4, 2017.
Closes: July 29, 2017.
Running Time: 2 hours, 30 min. approx.


At the Amphitheatre in High Park, Toronto, Ont.

Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Tanja Jacobs
Set by Claire Hill
Costumes and props by Victoria Wallace
Lighting by Rebecca Picherack
Sound by Lyon Smith
Musical Director, Dan Rutzen
Cast: Jenni Burke
Jason Cadieux
Brett Dahl
Diane D’Aquila
Peter Fernandes
Kristiaan Hansen
Richard Lee
Michael Mann
Robert Persichini
Amelia Sargisson
Naomi Wright
Hannah Wayne-Phillips

A delightful, thoughtful production that does not ignore the darker parts of the play.

The Story. Count Orsino is in love with Olivia who ignores him because she’s in mourning for her recently deceased brother. Orsino persists. Into his employ comes a young man named Cesario. In fact it’s really a young woman named Viola who was in a shipwreck and got separated from her twin brother Sebastian and thinks him dead. She hears about Orsino and dresses as a boy to get a job working for him. Orsino asks Cesario to plead his case to Olivia. Olivia in turn becomes smitten with Cesario.

A subplot is Olivia’s uncle, Sir Toby Belch, a drunken lout, his friend Sir Andrew Aguecheek, who is trying to woo Olivia and Malvolio, Olivia’s imperious major domo of sorts. Sir Toby and company bedevil Malvolio and play tricks on him because they are mean.

The Production. Twelfth Night plays in rep with King Lear. This is the 35th season for Shakespeare in High Park and as such they marked the occasion with cake and popcorn at the opening of King Lear. They also had a bit of extra drama they didn’t need. Robert Persichini, a wonderful actor, who was to play the Fool in King Lear and Malvolio in Twelfth Night, was taken ill and couldn’t do either performance. The director for King Lear, Alistair Newton, read the part of the Fool in costume and make-up. Similarly Tanja Jacobs, the director of Twelfth Night read the part of Malvolio in costume, wig and makeup. I love the whole notion that the show must go on if at all possible. Everybody pulls together and the critics know to have compassion and flexibility in such a situation.

Director Tanja Jacobs has set the play in the Hotel Illyria. This gives the play a sense of a quick pace as hotel staff and guests scurry from one intrigue to another.

Orsino (Richard Lee) is a suave, dashing man in either a bathrobe, track suit, or spiffy duds, moping around the place, hoping for a smile from Olivia. Olivia (Naomi Wright) seems to run the place with efficiency and exasperation at being bothered by Orsino’s entreaties and her uncle’s shenanigans. She is absolutely besotted with Cesario and her whole prim manner changes into a giddy, distracted woman. As Cesario, Amelia Sargisson is that lovely mix of boyish and feminine, because Cesario is really Viola in disguise. Sargisson walks that fine line between both identities and charms and attracts both Orsino and Olivia. As Sir Toby, Jason Cadieux is loud, loutish and always staggering with the effects of drink. He is ably joined by Peter Fernandes as the hapless Sir Andrew. As Fabiana, the hotel beautician, Diane D’Aquila plays her as a cigarette smoking busy-body with a wicked sense of irreverence. As Feste, Jenni Burke is a sassy, flippant Feste who smiles through life making fun of everything. Even reading the part of Malvolio, Tanja Jacobs captures Malvolio’s disdain and humour.

Humour with an edge suffuses Tanja Jacobs’ buoyant production. It’s full of intelligent detail, irreverent wit and the unsettling feeling that often we are laughing at the shenanigans of Sir Toby and company when we should be looking at them with knitted eye-brows. I love being unsettled by work this good.

Comment. The setting in High Park is lovely; the atmosphere is good natured fun. Shakespeare in High Park also attracts the most attentive audiences. I think it’s a good way to become familiar with Shakespeare and his plays and with Twelfth Night you get lots of laughs with plenty of serious things to ponder.

Produced by Canadian Stage.

Opened: July 14, 2017.
Closes: Sept. 3, 2017.
Cast: 12: 7 men, 5 women
Running Time: 90 minutes, no intermission.


At the Amphitheatre in High Park, Toronto, Ont.

Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Alistair Newton
Set by Claire Hill
Costumes by Carolyn Smith
Lighting by Rebecca Picherack
Sound by Lyon Smith
Musical Director, Dan Rutzen
Fight Director, Simon Fon
Cast: Jenni Burke
Jason Cadieux
Brett Dahl
Diane D’Aquila
Peter Fernandes
Kristiaan Hansen
Richard Lee
Michael Mann
Robert Persichini
Amelia Sargisson
Naomi Wright
Hannah Wayne-Phillips

A workman-like production with some interesting gender-bending.

The Story. You know the story. King Lear is a lousy parent who divides his kingdom amongst his three daughters, Goneril (the eldest), Regan (the middle daughter) and Cordelia (the youngest). He’s going to spend equal time with each daughter who will take care of him, but he will keep the title and the retinue of about 100 men with dirty boots and bad manners.

But before Lear hands over the land he plays a bit of a game on the daughters by asking them to tell him how much they love him so they get a prized piece of real estate. We know he’s already divided the land equally but he makes his daughters go through hoops.

Goneril and Regan go along with it. Has he done this before, one wonders, and so the two eldest daughters know the game? Cordelia does not play. She loves him like a daughter should and that should be all that is needed. Lear is enraged. Is there any wonder it all ends badly.

The Production. This is the 35th year of doing Shakespeare in High Park. They had cake and popcorn last night at the opening. And a bit of extra drama they didn’t need. Robert Persichini, a wonderful actor, who was to play the Fool was taken ill and couldn’t do the performance. The director Alistair Newton read the part of the Fool in costume and make-up. I love the whole notion that the show must go on if at all possible. Everybody pulls together and the critics know to have compassion and flexibility in such a situation.

Alistair Newton makes some interesting directorial decisions for this production. King Lear is played by Diane D’Aquila who plays King Lear as a woman. I think it works. Lear is a strong character, bold, opinionated and in control. In this context she is impatient when she’s not listened to and that will happen often here. D’Aquila makes King Lear a woman who it’s dangerous to cross. She is imperious, volatile when her authority is challenged, yet gradually ground down when Goneril and Regan get even.

When King Lear first makes her entrance (I’m referring to ‘her’ from now on) she wears a white nightgown and is doddery and seems confused. As she is being dressed by her ‘staff’ in black Elizabethan finery she becomes in control, sharp-minded and anything but doddery. It’s as if the whole idea of being a ruler gives her her edge back.

While I won’t comment on the performance of the Fool, I will say it’s interesting that the Fool (who is played by a man) is dressed as King Lear is, in a black gown, as if they are each other’s alter ego. Interesting touch.

Kent in this case is also depicted as a woman and is played with confidence and assurance by Jenni Burke. Ms Burke is a wonderful surprise. Her forte is musical theatre. I believe this is her first Shakespeare production. She illuminates Kent’s loyalty to King Lear but also her sense of injustice when Lear banishes Cordelia. Kent knows it’s dangerous to challenge Lear, but at her core, Kent is a wise, just woman full of heart. Lovely performance.

Also full of heart is Jason Cadieux as Gloucester. Both Lear and Gloucester are parents who have mistreated and misjudged their children. Both parents endure terrible pain on their way to realizing what they have done and to make amends. Cadieux plays Gloucester initially flippantly, but then more and more concerned as he realizes who he can and can’t trust. Cadieux also instils great heart in his performance as Gloucester.

It’s refreshing to see Cordelia played with such forthright clarity by Amelia Sargisson. She is fearful regarding the game of telling Lear how much she loves her, but this Cordelia also knows the folly of the game and is confident enough to say so. Sargisson’s Cordelia is formidable in battle which gives her a different kind of confidence when she meets Lear again. Sargisson also handles the text with assurance.

Naomi Wright does fine work as Generil, the eldest daughter who bears the brunt of King Lear’s raging wrath. Wright handles the complexities of the language and the character with style and grace.

Comment. I have found that often in these park situations the cast tends to be uneven. While there are many fine actors in this production of King Lear, there are also a few young actors who are not up to the job. I can appreciate that it’s a learning experience, but you hope for a modicum understanding of the play, the style and how to say the words from the actors. It’s also a learning experience for the director.

This is a Canadian Stage production in collaboration with the Department of Theatre in the School of the Arts, Media, Performance and Design at York University. Both Alistair Newton, who is directing King Lear and Tanja Jacobs, who is directing Twelfth Night in High Park, are graduates in the Masters Program in Directing. Newton has a flair for arranging his actors around the stage, although you wish that he could make all his actors/actresses rise to the occasion of the Bard. The cast is strong in many cases and weak in others.

The setting in High Park is lovely; the atmosphere is good natured fun. Shakespeare in High Park also attracts the most attentive audiences. I think it’s a good way to become familiar with Shakespeare and his plays.

Produced by Canadian Stage.

Opened: July 13, 2017.
Closes: Sept. 3, 2017.
Cast: 12: 7 men, 5 women
Running Time: 90 minutes, no intermission.


At the National Theatre, London, England.

Written by Tony Kushner
Directed by Marianne Elliott
Set by Ian MacNeil
Costumes by Nicky Gillibrand
Lighting by Paule Constable
Choreography and movement by Robby Graham
Sound by Ian Dickinson
Puppetry director and movement by Finn Caldwell
Puppet designers, Finn Caldwell and Nick Barnes
Illusions by Chris Fisher
Cast: Susan Brown
Andrew Garfield
Denise Gough
Nathan Lane
Amanda Lawrence
James McArdle
Nathan Stewart-Jarrett
Russell Tovey
Stuart Angell
Laura Caldow
Claire Lambert
Becky Namgauds
Stan West
Lewis Watkins

A blazing play given a dazzling production, that is as timely now as it was 25 years ago.

The Story. When Tony Kushner was 30 years old, for want of something better to do, he wrote Angels in America, A Gay Fantasia on National Themes. It is in two parts. Part One is called Millennium Approaches. Part Two is Perestroika (restructuring). Both parts deal with the Aids epidemic in America from 1985. It examines, relationships, loyalty, politics, malicious manipulation, denial, hope, prophecy, marriage, commitment, truth, health, love and forgiveness.

Part One: Millennium Approaches. Prior Walter and Louis Ironson are a couple. Prior is sick with Aids and Louis is full of despair about the possible loss of his partner. He is also a rather weak man who cannot bear to stay and help Prior and leaves him.

Louis works as a clerk in the Justice Department. He is discovered in the bathroom, sobbing, by Joseph Pitt, an upright, righteous lawyer who works for the Justice Department. Joseph is a Mormon, married to Harper Pitt which is fragile-minded and takes pills. The marriage is in trouble. Joseph’s mentor is Roy M Cohn, a combative, vindictive lawyer (Note: Cohn was the mentor of Donald J. Trump, make of that what you will).

Joseph realizes he is gay but of course can’t bring himself to admit it. He begins a relationship with Louis. Roy Cohn is also suffering from Aids because he’s gay but will sue anyone who says it. Cohn says that he’s a heterosexual man who sleeps with other men. He does not have Aids. He has liver cancer.

While he is in various hospitals and trying to stay alive, Prior imagines he is hearing a winged angel coming to help. The Angel appears at the end of the Act.

Part Two: Perestroika

The Angel calls Prior the Prophet. He is confused and frightened. For all the talk of The Angel, it cannot really help Prior. Roy Cohn is also in the hospital and everyone knows it’s for Aids. He is tended by Belize, a smart-mouthed, carrying nurse who is a friend of Prior’s. No matter his personal feelings about Cohn, Belize tends to Cohn with compassion and honesty. Through bullying, threats and nefarious means, Cohn purloins a huge personal supply of an experimental drug that can help him. (AZT). With equal cunning Belize negotiates some of the vials from Cohn’s stash for Prior, among others.

Relationships become clear and honest in Perestroika. Cohn is dying. He is visited by the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg for whose death Cohn was responsible. Prior is saved by the drugs. Harper, fragile though she is, throws Joseph out. Joseph and Louis begin to live together.

The Production. Director Marianne Elliott has created a production of breath-taking scope and yet intimacy. She has such a vision for her productions that always serve the play, yet there is such a particular kind of vocabulary to her direction that you can always tell it’s hers.

Millennium Approaches is a clean, straightforward, yet stylish telling of the story. Ian MacNeil’s sets are ultra-cool and modern. They move on and off silently, efficiently, and are spare. Modules create rooms. They often rise up from trap doors. Edges of the structures are illuminated in Paule Constable’s neon lighting. Her lighting is also distinctive (witness her work on War Horse for example).

Above the set for both parts is a structure that looks like a space-ship of sorts. Not sure what that is. Impressive though.The appearance of The Angel is startling. We hear the flapping of the wings and an echoed voice declaring it is coming. Prior—a wonderful, loose-limbed, frightened, very funny, tenacious Andrew Garfield—is terrified at what is happening but curious. With an explosion of light, there is a sprightly, almost tiny, Amanda Lawrence in white fright wig and a body stocking of shades of grey, held aloft on the shoulders of ‘creatures’, also in grey body-stockings. The creatures are called Angel Shadows. They carry The Angel through the air. The wings are huge and are held and manipulated by two Angel Shadows one on either side of The Angel. The wings are not attached to her body. They separate. The image of this Angel is breath-taking. End of Part One. Whew.

The tone, look and feel of Part Two: Perestroika is different. Now all the scenes and set pieces are changed by the scurrying, spooky Angel Shadows. They are like animals on all fours, in the shadows, lurking. Even the changes of the set are choreographed. An Angel Shadow takes a lamp by holding it and twirling off stage. The set pieces, rooms etc. are now pushed around by the scurrying Angel Shadows. We seem them squatting still in the gloom, ready to move. It’s all done silently, but there is that heightened emotion and foreboding about the whole thing.

Relationships are now set. Cohn is writhing in pain. Ethel sits watching him, smiling. Prior has hallucinations. He sees visions of his ancestors. He also comes to the reality that he is better off without Louis.

The acting from top to bottom is superb. As Roy Cohn, Nathan Lane proves once again that he is not ‘just a brilliant comedian.’ He is fury, bullying, relentless evil. And yet, he earns our compassion. As Harper Pitt, Denise Gough is worn down with insecurity, pills, uncertainty about her husband, and lost. As Louis, James McArdle is a torrent of language, ideas, philosophy, blather and baloney. He is a weak man who leaves his lover, and yet, again, we have compassion. Belize is all sass and sashay when played by Nathan Stewart-Jarrett. As Joseph Pitt, Russell Tovey is a clean-cut, totally insecure man who is gay and absolutely can’t admit it. This is a wonderful, nuanced actor. Susan Brown plays a patient, smiling Ethel Rosenberg, a wise rabbi, a carrying mother in Hannah Pitt, and a Russian philosopher, wonderfully.

Comment. Tony Kushner’s play is loaded with poetry, esoteric philosophy, a brilliant political mind and a dazzling imagination. The themes of Angels in America are many, various and eye-popping. But at its centre is a play about love and relationships, friendships that are strong. And the play is bursting with compassion. Roy Cohn is just the embodiment of evil, but when he dies, Louis, who is Jewish, is asked to say Kadesh, the Hebrew prayer for the dead. He’s not sure of what to say so he wings it at first (very funny when he throws in the prayer for wine). But then the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg appears and stands behind Louis and begins to say the prayer. He doesn’t see Ethel of course, but he ‘hears’ the words of the player and begins to say the words until they both come to the end of the payer. Then Ethel says: ‘Son of a bitch’ and so does Louis. Perfect. Tony Kushner gives Cohn absolution, but also puts in perspective how horrible he was in real life.

This is a huge, brilliant production of a huge brilliant play. Important. Timely.

Continues at the National Theatre until August 19.

Is broadcast on National Theatre Live: July 20, Part One: Millennium Approaches; July 27, Part Two: Perestroika.


At the Duke of York’s Theatre, London, England

From the novel The Sopranos by Alan Warner
Adapted by Lee Hall
Directed by Vicky Featherstone
Designed by Chloe Lamford
Lighting by Lizzie Powell
Sound by Mike Walker
Choreography by Imogen Knight
Cast: Becky Brass
Caroline Deyga
Karen Fishwick
Isis Hainsworth
Lilly Howard
Emily Linden
Kirsty MacLaren
Frances Mayli McCann
Amy Shackcloth
Dawn Sievewright

Lively, irreverent, rude, raw, and almost incomprehensible to me because of the thick Scottish accent and the whizzing slang.

The Story. Six convent girls are going to a choir competition in Edinburgh. It’s been an interesting year. Seven girls alone in this one graduating class have become pregnant. Lots of pent up emotions here. The girls take the bus organized for the journey and along the way get into all manner of trouble: drinking, picking up men, getting drunk, loosing their uniforms (stolen actually), setting fire to a pub, tricking people, telling each other their secrets, getting reprimanded by the Mother Superior, singing their bits in the competition dressed in their street clothes, being eliminated, then going completely wild after that.

The Production
. The six girls introduce themselves to us, facing the audience. There are tables and chairs on the stage on the two sides of the stage for those people silly enough to think these are great seats. All they see are the backs of the heads of the girls or the sides of their heads. As this show is fashioned like a traditional Scottish ceilidh, a party where everyone participates. That might be nice when everyone is all there together, but when people on stage are paying something like £39 at least for the privilege, that’s just nuts.

Director Vicky Featherstone directs this with energy, abandon, raucous liveliness and irreverence. The girls sing beautifully when doing their choir pieces and full out belting when they are rocking.

There are the usual types here: the loner girl who is posh, pregnant and terrified to tell her parents, a girl recovering from cancer and finds it’s come back, a girl who is in love with the one who is pregnant, a girl from an abusive family, etc.

It ends in a blaze of ‘care-less’ energy as the girls belt out their last song in a blaze of light, that these are the best years of their lives. Irony drips from the rafters.

Comment. The meaning of succour: “assistance and support in times of hardship and distress.” “The wounded had little chance of succour.” Irony continues to drip…..

The reviews and the reaction to this wild show have been rapturous. Me, I didn’t care. Not a jot. That happens when the accent is so thick I can’t make out 60% of what they are saying—I’m usually good with this stuff, but was defeated here. Also the slang went so fast again I couldn’t make it out. And the actual content, after a while, destructive behaviour is just so tiresome. Is it generational? Do I lack the needed frustration of these girls to care about them? Feh.

The performances of all the girls and the girl band are stellar. Lee Hall’s adaptation I’m sure is stellar too, it’s just that I didn’t have a clue for the most part about what is going on. When I did, I just could not give a rise to compassion. The girls are all so repressed in that school and so eager to bust out, and so devoid of a sense of right, wrong, and in between, it was a hard road to caring or understanding. When their world really came crashing down—when they were reprimanded by the nuns and tossed out of the competition, they then went into overdrive in wild behaviour, destruction, cold-hearted behaviour to strangers, (men), that I was lost. It was heartening that they showed compassion to each other. Yawn. I will read the source material though, just to see what I’m missing, or not.

A rare dud on this wonderful trip of generally great theatre.

Continues open-ended.