by Lynn on May 28, 2012

in The Passionate Playgoer

The following two reviews were broadcast on Friday, May 25, 2012 CIUT FRIDAY MORNING, 89.5 FM: PRESENT LAUGHTER until Oct. 28; and >A MAN AND SOME WOMEN. At the Shaw Festival until September 22.


1) Good Friday Morning. The theatre scene is heating up with the opening this week of the Shaw Festival. Lynn Slotkin, our theatre critic and passionate playgoer was there and is here with her report.

Hi Lynn What do you have for us?

I have two reviews. PRESENT LAUGHTER by Noël Coward opened the Festival on Wednesday, and A MAN AND SOME WOMEN by Githa Sowerby opened last night.

2) As we usually do, let’s take them in order, beginning with PRESENT LAUGHTER. So the Shaw Festival didn’t open with a Shaw play?

I like that gutsy move of Artistic Director Jackie Maxwell not to open the festival with its namesake. Sure the festival is devoted to plays with ideas, and heaven knows that Shaw is full of ideas, but sometimes a lighter touch is needed to get things started. That light touch is PRESENT LAUGHTER, which is not to say it doesn’t have its fair share of idea.

It’s about Garry Essendine is a charming, self-centred, matinee idol that the ladies just love. He’s dashing, suave, a bon vivant and looks good in a dressing gown. If you automatically think of Noel Coward, you’re right—he based it on himself and originated the role. Garry is anxious because he’s planning an extended theatre tour of Africa. He is besieged by all sorts of people who want his time. There is his long-serving secretary who tries to protect him but it’s hard. There is a young gushing woman he met at a party and took home with him. He says he’s mad about her but can’t remember her name (it’s Daphne). There is an overwrought playwright named Roland Maule wants to talk about his play and gets an earful from Garry.That tirade makes Maule absolutely obsessively devoted to Garry. Then there is Joanna, the scheming, predatory wife of one of his best friends. She sets her sights on Garry as her next conquest. His ex-wife Liz tries to help and at times it’s all a whirlwind of activity and mayhem.

3) Some people call Noel Coward light-weight. Is Present Laughter in that category?

I think people who call him light-weight haven’t read his work. They aren’t familiar with the breadth and scope of it. He’s written plays about drug addition in the same year that he wrote plays that are hilarious but with depth. He writes about love in all its prickly, painful nature.

>PRESENT LAUGHTER in part is about the theatre-Garry gives a terrific speech about the theatre to Maule that is a good lesson to anyone starting out who thinks they know it all. It’s about people who are loyal to this charismatic man—it’s interesting that his secretary has been with him for 17 years. Is she secretly in love with him? Perhaps, but the arch, cool, even cutting way she deals with him, mixed with affection, presents a three dimensional picture of that relationship.
His ex-wife is devoted to him, but doesn’t have illusions. Perhaps it’s Garry’s self-centredness that attracts the silly Daphne and Joanna the barracuda out for another conquest.

So no, I don’t’ think it’s a lightweight play. There is sharp-writing, skill, intriguing characters and complicated situations written with style.

4) How’s the production—does it realize the play?

Partially. Director David Schurmann has a clear sense of the taste and style of Garry’s world. He knows how to establish the humour. He has a gifted cast for the most part, who have impeccable timing and can float the laughs with east. As Garry, I like Steven Sutcliffe a lot. For me he has that grace, charm and dash of a man who is just so full of himself, but not so that the rest of his world is put off by it. And he’s smart when it comes to sizing up people.

I love the direction of Schurmann in a scene with Joanna—an attractive and dangerous Moya O’Connell. Garry is sitting in a chair over here-drink in hand; Joanna is over there on a couch, lounging and the air crackles with the electricity of these two self-absorbed people with their coy banter.Very still acting. Very focused scene. Terrific result.
Mary Haney as the Secretary is understated, knows the value of a pause and a look and is wonderful as a woman who has put up with shenanigans with a clear eye for 17 years.
But I thought that sometimes Schurmann went for the cheap laugh that really is unnecessary. Daphne blowing her nose noisily into a handkerchief is overkill. The whole performance of Jonathan Tan as Roland Maule grated. Tan is over-wrought. When Maule is overly excited, he jumps onto and across a sofa, jumps into the air and lands cross-legged on the floor. Ridiculous.

Maule might be a fool but I have to believe him somehow as a playwright. I don’t believe anyone who jumps on furniture and that goes for Tom Cruise. So a partially successful production, but the good aspects outweighed the disappointments.

5) And A MAN AND SOME WOMEN, what’s it about? It’s written by Githa Sowerby.

A fantastic writer-a woman who wrote in the early 1900s.She wrote the wonderful RUTHERFORD AND SON and THE STEPMOTHER, both done at the Shaw. She is one of Jackie Maxwell’s archaeological discoveries—like finding buried treasure.

>A MAN AND SOME WOMEN was done in 1914 in Manchester and then rarely done after that. This is about the place of women in that society; duty to family, social inequity of men and women and the power of money. Richard Shannon always wanted to be a scientist but had a duty to take care of his mother and his two sisters, Elizabeth and Rose. He also married a woman Hilda who spends money freely expecting Richard to provide more of it. So he forgot his dreams of a life in science and went into business which he hated. His mother dies. The women expect there to be an inheritance. They get a rude awakening. There are accusations of infidelity. He is very close to a family friend—Jessica Rose and Hilda are revealed as vile.

6) Why do you call Githa Sowerby a fantastic writer?

Because her sense of character and dialogue is terrific. The ideas of society, duty, and a moral code are complex and fascinating. And certainly the issue of women and money and Their inability to make their own money because of society’s dictates regarding women, is really well developed. When Elizabeth went to find a job, she realized she was not suited to anything but housekeeping.

Sowerby knew about women’s issues of the time and she applied them to her characters in a way that certainly shows us the moral dilemmas each had to contend with. But she could also put herself in the position of the men. Richard was also in a trapped situation and Sowerby beautifully and clearly captured that as well. At times the dialogue sounds clichéd but you have to realize that Githa Sowerby was the forerunner. Plays after this usually written by men did make the dialogue sound clichéd—but on closer look, that didn’t apply to Sowerby.

7) And the production?

Crackling good. It’s directed by Alisa Palmer, who has a keen eye for the telling detail, and digs deep for the heart and soul of the play. And her cast is so gifted. Beginning with Graeme Sommerville as Richard. He can look mournful, conflicted and resolute at the same time. Richard is as trapped in the convention of the times as the women are and wanting to do right by them but also by himself comes out in this wonderful performance.
As Jessica, Marla McLean is a revelation. Jessica is no pushover as played by McLean. She’s independent, resourceful intellectually and a perfect example of the new woman in Sowerby’s world. As Hilda, the willful, imperious wife of Richard, Jenny L. Wright is formidable—like a majestic ship sailing into a scene, slight, hard smile, ready
to rip. She scared me.

As Rose, Kate Hennig is dangerous because Rose is so malicious. And as Elizabeth, Sharry Flett is in the middle of These difficult women—she is unsteady in this changing world but knows her limitations and how to solve them. There are such beautiful performances in this dazzling play. Loved it.

I recommend both of them, even though I had some reservations with PRESENT LAUGHTER.

Thanks Lynn. That’s Lynn Slotkin our theatre critic and passionate playgoer. You can read Lynn’s blog at

PRESENT LAUGHTER plays at the Shaw Festival until Oct. 28.
A MAN AND SOME WOMEN plays at the Shaw Festival until September 22.

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