by Lynn on July 24, 2014

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the 4th Line Theatre, Millbrook, Ont.

Written by Ian McLachlan and Robert Winslow
Directed by Robert Winslow
Musical Director and Composition, Justin Hiscox
Costumes by Anne Redish
Gary Bryant
Marjie Chud
Liam Davidson
Matt Gilbert
Lorna Green
Geff Hewitson
Justin Laurie
Jenna LeFrancois
Frances Loiselle

A rare disappointment of spotty writing and shouty acting from this usually good theatre company.

The Story. The play by Ian McLachlan and Robert Winslow is based on true stories of poor British children who were sent to Canada from England, ostensibly for a better life for them, in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Their benefactor was Dr. Thomas Barnardo, a philanthropist. He set up several Barnardo homes to house, feed and take care of these young people and get them off the streets and into safety. He got funding for his endeavours but it wasn’t enough. He had to find another way of taking care of them. Canada, eh!! Of course. He arranged to send many of these young people to Canada to help on farms for the boys and in homes as domestic help for girls. More Barnardo Homes were set up in Canada. One was Hazelbrae in Peterborough, Ont. There were inspections of the Bernardo Homes to see that all was well. At one point Barnardo himself camp to Peterborough.

Doctor Barnardo’s Children is really a flashback from the point of view of two old friends: Walter White and Billy Fiddler. They are two ‘old codgers’ who in fact were Bernardo children who knew each other as kids in London, and unbeknownst to the other, came to Canada and were settled close to each other. They did find each other when they were children and remained close friends.

Walter and his siblings were put into care temporarily when their single father couldn’t take care of them himself. His intension was to take them back as soon as he had the money. Unbeknownst to him the family is separated and sent to Canada. Walter lost track of his beloved sister Lily and spent the better part of his life trying to find her.

Billy came to Canada and had such a bully as a boss he ran away and sought help from Walter. Billy never went back to that terrible man.

The Production. As with all the 4th Line Theatre shows, the action takes place in the barnyard and the environs of the lovely Winslow family farm. There is also local reference in how stories related to Dr. Barnardo’s children. The audience sits either in uncovered bleachers to one side or in the middle, in which much of the audience can sit under an overhang if they are quick to get those seats. Those not quick enough sit in the centre but uncovered section. If it rains those not covered get wet.

Director Robert Winslow uses the buildings and the meadows of the farm to good effect. And he has an eye for the dramatic too when a large, gracefully lumbering cow is lead out for a scene in which the older Walter teaches his granddaughter how to milk a cow. This is quickly echoed by the young Walter being taught how to milk a cow. Winslow has the character sit on a stool with his back to the audience, blocking our seeing his ‘grab and pull’ technique. A neat way of piquing our interest, but not betraying any lack of technique from the actor. The cow is superb.

What isn’t superb is the script. It is surprisingly sparse on information. We shouldn’t have to read a program note to learn that Barnardo was a philanthropist and devoted to downtrodden children. Missing is any information on how he came to this calling. He wasn’t a doctor, why then is he Dr. Barnardo? I would have liked some background on how he got finances from the government. I would like to know how. There is a lot of disturbing news that children were physically and sexually abused yet there was no help for them. When Barnardo came to Peterborough to give a speech he did see that one young Bernardo girl was terrified of her employer. He was initially concerned but did nothing. Barnardo defended himself by saying that he had helped thousands of children. But the few examples we see suggests otherwise. The script should have explored this darker side more clearly.

There is subtle detail in creating how that young girl is afraid of her employer—she flinches when he touches her (in fact the girl is Walter’s long lost sister Lily). As young Walter White, Justin Laurie has poise and the ability to make his voice carry without shouting. But much of the production seems heavy handed because so much of the acting is little more than shouting. I can appreciate that much of the cast are young members of the community and might not have the necessary acting experience, but surely Winslow could have helped. While Liam Davidson as young Billy Fiddler is energetic and impish, he talks too fast and his cockney accent gets in the way. Slow down.

As Dr. Barnardo, Herbie Barnes does nothing but shout, thus giving a one-noted, unsubtle performance. I know it’s out doors with no amplification, (that might be a thought in future) but the trick is not to shout to make us hear. The trick is to project but make us listen. As Rose, an advocate for the truth about the Barnardo children, Marjie Chud also yells her lines and for some strange reason gives them almost all the time looking at the audience and not the person being spoken to.

Comment. It rained the day I saw the show. The audience was up for the challenge as was the cast and the crew. Rain ponchos were dispensed to those in the open. When the rain got heavy a rain delay was called for about 15 minutes. The show continued to the end, in a steady downpour. The audience applauded the cast, who in turn applauded the audience. Everybody felt good about each other. I just wished the whole thing was better.

Produced by 4th Line Theatre, Millbrook, Ont.

Opened: July 1, 2014
Closes: July 26, 2014
Cast: 46: 23 men/boys, 23 women/girls
Running Time: 2 hours 15 minutes, approx.

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