by Lynn on May 20, 2013

in The Passionate Playgoer

The following reviews were broadcast on Friday, May 17, 2013; CIUT FRIDAY MORNING, 89.5 FM: From the Shaw Festival: MAJOR BARBARA and OUR BETTERS both playing until the Fall.

The host was Phil Taylor.


1)   It’s theatre time here at CIUT FRIDAY MORNING. The Shaw Festival opened last weekend and Lynn Slotkin, our theatre critic and passionate playgoer is here to tell us how it went.

Hi Lynn. What did you see?


The Festival opened with three productions: MAJOR BARBARA by George Bernard Shaw; OUR BETTERS by W. Somerset Maugham and GUYS and DOLLS the buoyant musical based on a story and characters of Damon Runyon.

The Festival is of course dedicated to the plays of Shaw and also his contemporaries.  Over the years the mandate has expanded to include modern plays that are set in the time of Shaw.  He lived from 1856 to 1950—that’s a long time.


2)   For those of us who can’t remember our high school English, refresh our memories. What’s the story of MAJOR BARBARA about?


It’s about the power of money; saving souls and moral dilemmas to name a few. Welcome to Shaw country.

Barbara Undershaft is a feisty, formidable woman who is dedicated to saving the souls of lost people.

She does this through the Salvation Army where she has reached the level of Major. With the promise of food and a cup of tea she attracts those lost folks to have their souls saved.

Barbara comes from a life of privilege. Her mother is titled—Lady Britomart Undershaft. Her father is a leader in industry—Andrew Undershaft. Her parents have been separated for years. But Barbara and her sister are engaged to men who are penniless. 

Barbara’s fella is Adolphus Cusins, a professor of Greek—not much money there. So Barbara’s mother summons Mr. Undershaft to the house to make arrangements to give their daughters sufficient money to live properly.

Barbara is appalled. She wants no part of her father’s money because of the way he makes it. He is the owner of a company that sells munitions, guns, bombs etc. to whomever wants to pay the money for it. To Barbara, her father trades in death.

 Undershaft is invited to the mission to see how Barbara does her work and saves souls. He in turn invites her to his munitions factory. The mission is in dire need of money to survive. Undershaft offers it. Barbara refuses it. But the other folks at the mission don’t have such scruples. The mission needs the money for them to do their good work. They accept Undershaft’s offer.

Undershaft says that it’s not hard to save a soul with the promise of food and drink if they are starving and thirsty.


3)   And what happens when Barbara goes to her father’s factory?


She sees that he is the perfect employer. He pays his staff well. He gives them housing that is clean and comfortable. He provides recreational facilities. He offers various types of places of worship.  The factory is spotless. The workers are loyal and happy. Except Barbara can’t get her head around what her father sells.

I love Shaw’s moral dilemmas that he sets for everybody. And how they deal with them. He does go on with his own philosophizing but his arguments are finely drawn; thoughtful; and there is lots of room for discussion.


4)   This being a festival that specializes in Shaw, do they pull it off? 


They certainly do. Major Barbara is beautifully directed by Jackie Maxwell, the artistic director of the Shaw Festival. She is keenly intelligent; always serves the play by placing us in the world of it; never flashy; realizes the humour and wit of the play as well as the deep arguments. And because of her direction the story-telling is very clear. 

She has chosen to stage this huge play in the small Royal George Theatre she says in her program note, for better focus and clarity. I think it’s a bold move that pays off.

You get the whole sweep of that grand world even on the small Royal George stage thanks to Judith Bowden’s design. A white backdrop suggests a wall of books that goes from the floor up to the flies. The height of that backdrop creates the sense of size of that room and hence that house. There are a few tasteful pieces of furniture in front of it. Elegant and rich.

Maxwell of course has a gifted cast adept at the intricacies of Shaw and his arguments. As Barbara, Nicole Underhay is both a firecracker of conviction and a woman who knows how to charm.  She conveys Barbara’s sharp intelligence and fearlessness.

She is equally matched by Benedict Campbell as Undershaft.  As Undershaft, Campbell is no nonsense, quick-witted with a proposition; tempered and never really overbearing. He’s a man who is successful and with it comes the confidence that brings.

 As Adolphus Cusins the Greek scholar, Graeme Somerville has a quiet dignity and a way with a tricky argument. As Lady Britomart Undershaft, Laurie Paton has that confident hauteur in which the silliness of life is aggravating, be it with her well-dressed but twit of a son, or her exasperating common-sensical husband. The rest of the cast is dandy.


5)   And tell us about Our Betters. 


It was written in 1915 by W. Somerset Maugham. It’s about that rarefied world of money and titles in England, more specifically American money and British titles. Young, wealthy American women would go to England looking for a titled husband. Often they would find them, with the understanding these fellows had social standing but no money.  So the husband got the wife’s money and the wife got the title of the husband.

There of course is a connection to the hugely popular TV show Downton Abbey, in which the Earl of Grantham had the title but not much money and Cora his bride had oodles of money and gets the title of Countess when she marries.

Our Betters takes us into that closed world. Lady Pearl Grayston is an American woman who came to London years before seeking her titled husband and the entry into British society. She gets him and the houses but not much joy in that marriage. We never see the husband.

Pearl’s younger sister Bessie has come over from America looking for her match too. Pearl will see that Bessie is well taken care of and introduced to all the eligible (titled) men available. Bessie is dazzled by the opulence, and the grandeur of it all.

She is followed to England by Fleming Harvey, a young American man in his twenties who was engaged at 18 to Bessie—she was 16, but it was broken off recently. They have grown up since then so to keep up the engagement seemed silly to Bessie. But Mr. Harvey still pines for her. 

We meet Pearl’s American friends: Thornton Clay is a bitchy gossip; the Duchesse de Surennes carries on with much young men; the Princess della Cercola is in a loveless marriage.  She is a watchful observer. She’s fascinating. There are other hangers on, equally as catty. 

Eventually something happens to make Bessie realize her sister’s world is not as glamourous as she had hoped.


6)   These aren’t a nice group of people are they?


Indeed not, but plays are full of people we wouldn’t spend time with ordinarily. And this world of the 1% has always been fascinating to the rest of us.

 I’m reminded of that wonderful line in Downton Abbey in which the heir of the place has to come and do some administrative work for the estate and he says he will come down at the weekend to tend to those matters. He works as a solicitor during the week. And the Dowager Countess (played by the formidable Maggie Smith) is confused and asks, “What’s a weekend?” That says it all.

 This is a lifestyle in which these people are hermetically sealed in their own reality. Clueless about the real world. They wouldn’t know about devastating earthquakes, world wars or other global catastrophes if it didn’t pertain to their small circle.

 Director Morris Panych creates that world beautifully.

The set by Ken MacDonald is sumptuous in spite of being on a small stage. Again the back walls of Lady Grayston’s Mayfair house and the country house, rise to the flies, giving a sense of the hugeness to the places.

In the case of the Mayfair house, one very large sofa commands the room. If taken on its own for the theatre it would be overpowering. But in the context of a room in this grand house, it’s perfect. In the case of the country house, the back wall is dark with stained glass. It perfectly suggests a house big enough to accommodate nine weekend guests (who no doubt would know what a weekend is).

 Charlotte Dean’s frocks for the women and smart suits for the men are beautiful and elegant. You get the sweep of that world.

 It’s fascinating to watch Pearl manipulate her friends and create intrigues, especially as played by Claire Jullien. She is coy, cool, always scheming and yet gracious. Nothing phases her, even when she’s caught in an awkward situation.

 Interestingly I think Pearl could be the centre of her circle no matter where she lived. And considering how beautifully Jullien plays her, she could be the head of her own successful business. In this case the business is societal.  

 As the Duchesse, Laurie Paton is haughty, pretentious, and dangerous. She is a cougar, but Charlotte Dean accents her costumes in a leopard motif.  These people are scary and compelling.

 And Maugham knows them well and that world.

For all their social climbing, these Americans stuck together because the Brits wouldn’t have anything to do with them, but gladly accepted the money. So you associate with people who say one thing to your face and another thing behind your back. That’s why Pearl needs to make it up with the Duchesse.

 Not to let these people off without rebuke Maugham has several consciences to observe and comment.

 As Fleming Harvey, Wade Bogert-O’Brien is the watchful outsider with a conscience. He has come to win Bessie back but has to engage in that phoney world in order to do it. He sees how these preening, phoney Americans are desperate to fit in to British society, and of course do not. He does not say much, but his subtle reactions to the goings on speak volumes. Bogert-O’Brien has tremendous class and style as Fleming Harvey.

 Another character who is watchful, with a conscience is Princess della Cercola, beautifully played by Catherine McGregor. The Princess married into British society but with unhappy results. Her husband is no where to be seen. But she does not voice her concerns about her bitchy friends because she would then be totally ostracized. But the sadness and sense of being resigned to it is so clear in McGregor’s performance.  Instead she does her own kind of quiet manipulation to try and get Bessie and Fleming Harvey back together and back to the States and away from that toxic world.

 In a lovely bit of subtle business, Morris Panych has the Princess quietly listening up stage at a door, watching as Bessie and Harvey slowly, beautifully reconnect and realize they were made for each other.

 We don’t see any titled Englishmen or women in this play to put in context how they feel about these interloping Americans. But we do get a clear sense of disdain from the British butler, Pole. Pole is played with withering but subtle disdain by Anthony  Bekenn. With every introduction of every new American titled guest, we know exactly how he feels; a raised eyebrow here; a slight sneer there; a look of boredom with the whole pack of them. Beautiful.

 I am disappointed with Julia Course who plays Bessie. For the first two Acts she is too superficial and one dimensional.  At the end of Act II she witnesses  something shocking involving Pearl and burst into tears which is totally mystifying. Only in Act III do we realize how affected Bessie is by this phoney world. To make the part work we must see hints, traces of that deeper sensibility in Acts I and II in order to justify such an emotional collapse at the end of Act II and the realization that Fleming Harvey is her soulmate. Ms Course is capable of that. I hope that with playing she will expand and flesh out her performance.  

 Morris Panych and his design team and cast has created a world of detail, intrigue, loneliness, disappointment and ultimately love and enlightenment.

 Once again I’m reminded how great a writer Somerset Maugham is. A strong beginning to the Shaw Festival.


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

 Major Barbara continues at the Shaw Festival, the Royal George Theatre until October 19.

 Our Betters continues at the Shaw Festival, Royal George Theatre until October 27.

A review of Guys and Dolls will follow shortly.

Leave a Comment

Respectful comments are accepted on this site as long as they are accompanied by a verifiable name and a verifiable e-mail address. Posts that are slanderous, libelous or personally derogatory will not be approved.