Review: THE FARM SHOW: Then & Now

by Lynn on June 24, 2024

in The Passionate Playgoer

Photo by Gemma James Smith l-r: Fiona Mongillo, Landon Doak, Jamie Mac, Geoffrey Armour, Hallie Seline

Live and in person on the Harvest Stage, Blyth Festival, Blyth, Ont. Playing until Aug. 4, 2024.

Written by Theatre Passe Muraille with new additions by the Company (the Blyth Company)

Directed by Gil Garratt

Set and lighting by Beth Kates

Costumes by Jenifer Triemstra-Johnson

Sound by Lyon Smith

Cast: Geoffrey Armour

Landon Doak

Jamie Mac

Fiona Mongillo

Hallie Seline

A truly once in a lifetime experience for so many reasons, not the least is seeing this iconic play in the area where it was created with many of the original creators in the audience, watching the new generation re-create it.

BACKGROUNED. In 1971, Paul Thompson went to the movies with his friend Ted Johns. The movie was about a Russian farmer who fell in love with his tractor, literally. At the time, Paul Thompson was the Artistic Director of Theatre Passe Muraille in Toronto. The film gave Thompson an idea. The next year (1972) Paul Thompson and a group of Theatre Passe Muraille actors would go to farm country around Clinton and Blyth, Ont. for three months, and would interview farmers and their families etc. about the work and life of a farmer. At the time there were family farms filling that area. Sometimes the actors would do chores and work in the fields etc. of the farm for the experience of what a farmer does all day.  At the end of the day, the actors would gather their various stories and shape them into a play. Paul Thompson would direct it. The result was the celebrated Farm Show. The first performance was done in the barn of Ray Bird, one of the farmers interviewed. The original company of actors for that show were: Ann Anglin, David Fox, Al Jones, Fina MacDonell and Miles Potter.

Fast forward to 2024. This is the 50th anniversary of the Blyth Festival, which does original Canadian plays usually focused on the area around Blyth, Clinton etc. Gil Garratt is the Artistic Director of the Blyth Festival. Gil Garratt felt it would be appropriate for the Blyth Festival to commemorate it’s 50th anniversary with this ‘version’ of The Farm Show: Then & Now with the new cast of actors recreating  the stories as well as adding new stories to the mix.

Thrilling, moving, celebratory.

The Story. These are vignettes, interviews and re-enactments of life as a farmer in rural Ontario, around Clinton and Blyth, Ont. The stories of how the actors pitched in and ‘helped’ with the grueling work are hilarious. The stories of the work, the worry about crops, the family and the economy are sobering. The re-enactment of the animals on the farm, to the majesty of a tractor in the fields, are impressive and vivid.

The Production.  There is a warning of foul language. I assume that means liberal mentions of chickens, roosters and the like.

Beth Kates has created a set of a farm kitchen and other locations, that is spare and effective. There are two pews on either side of the playing area with a few folks watching the action, as if we all are in church. There is a map of the area with the various farms and the families who run them. They were all neighbours who knew each other and pitched in when help was needed.

Jamie Mac, says that his fellow actors will be playing actors who are playing farmers. Actors (Geoffrey Armour in particular) put their arms under their armpits, and walk exaggeratedly around the set, suggesting animals, birds, and fowl. Jamie Mac will play many characters including a spare-talking farmer who gets right to the point. He also has a monologue that references the financial/economic worry of a farmer who sees the price of his produce rise in the store but does not see it equally rise in his income. The monologue is detailed, nuanced and gives a chilling idea of the cost to the farmer it is to farm.

All five actors arrange themselves with Landon Doak on the shoulders of Jamie Mac creating a tractor traveling the fields. Majestic.

Landon Doak plays an actor named Miles Potter from the original production who has to move huge bales of hay. It’s back-breaking work and if one is not dressed properly for it, can shred one’s thighs. Apparently, Miles Potter wore shorts. Landon Doak’s performance is hilarious, sweat-inducing, and makes one cross one’s legs carefully in sympathy and the horrible shredding the hay caused to the thighs.

Fiona Mongillo plays, among others, a harried mother of seven, trying to manage all the chores with little help from her rambunctious children or her pre-occupied husband. Hallie Seline plays various characters, who are cheerful, stoical and resourceful.  

There are original songs sung and played on instruments by the cast. They are clever, funny and reflect that challenging life.

The whole wonderful production is directed with loving humour and care by Gil Garratt.

The production is dedicated to the memory of both Ray Bird and David Fox. The first production of The Farm Show was performed by the original cast in Ray Bird’s barn. David Fox was one of the original actors in the company.

Gil Garratt reached out to Miles Potter to write something for this production about David Fox. Gil Garratt read it on the opening night. It was very funny, thoughtful and moving.

If I have a quibble, it’s that we don’t need even a hint of explanation at the top of the show that says we will be required to use our imaginations; that sometimes they will use implements/props that will suggest other things. The audiences who have supported this wonderful festival for 50 years get it and know that.

This production of The Farm Show: Then & Now is glorious. It celebrates the dedicated folks who feed us—farmers. It is done in a way that also celebrates the gritty, fearless, artfully imaginative actors and their director, then and now.

Comment. Opening night of this production of The Farm Show: Then & Now was thrilling for those of us who have been around a bit to know who was there. Over there, with his magnificent white hair and beard, was Paul Thompson, the original director of The Farm Show, who also conceived of the idea. He was with his wife of many years, Ann Anglin, who was in the original production. Behind him was Ted Johns, and actor and important in those early years of Theatre Passe Muraille—who went to the movie with Paul Thompson that gave him the idea. He was with his wife of many years, Janet Amos, who was also in the original production of The Farm Show. Over there a few rows back, was a smiling Miles Potter, watching an actor play him 52 years before. This time Mr. Potter was wearing long pants. Years before, when The Farm Show played in Toronto at Theatre Passe Muraille for the first time, a high school class went to see the production. A fifteen-year-old member of that class was Seana McKenna (now one of this country’s most celebrated actors). She thought one of the actors in the company was cute. That was Miles Potter. They have been together since 1980. She was sitting with Miles Potter in that opening night audience as well, smiling.

What a privilege it was to be there.

The Blyth Festival Presents:

Playing until Aug. 4, 2024.

Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes approx. (1 intermission)

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Ruth Lea Taylor July 8, 2024 at 3:46 pm

Former Ontarian ..emigrated to BC years ago….I have never heard of Blyth, Ontario …Can you give me a profile of the town, city or suburb …I love the name …Ruth Lea Taylor


2 Lynn July 8, 2024 at 4:40 pm

Blyth is about 40 minutes away from Stratford, Ont. It’s a farm town, in farm country and they have a summer theatre that is celebrating 50 years of wonderful theatre.