Never shy about using the theatre as a soapbox for political, societal, religious and moral posturing, George Bernard Shaw’s tale of an Englishman in Ireland is long on lecturing and short on drama.
In director Christopher Newton’s ever-capable hands, the result is better than it reads, but can’t find its way to the successful merger of proactive social commentary supported and reinforced by a narrative that lets the characters deliver their various sermons without need of a contrived pulpit.
The acting is uniformly first rate.
Benedict Campbell as entrepreneurial civil engineer Tom Broadbent seems born to play the part. Bubbling over with unrepentant love of country (England as the beneficent saviour of inefficient, destitute Ireland), sudden infatuation (Severn Thompson renders the here-for-both-leading-men-then-banished-to-the-wings role of Nora Reilly with an engaging promise that the Irish playwright fails to fully exploit) and irrepressible pluck (unexpectedly finding himself as the next candidate for a seat in Parliament representing his opportunistic constituents, Broadbent also has a wild ride while delivering a promised pig which begins as a “dine-out” story only to be transformed into yet another reason to cast a ballot for the Emerald Isle newcomer), Campbell gives a master class in characterization, timing and delivery that confirms the mastery of his craft. Those aspiring for an acting career are well-advised to see for themselves and learn.
Broadbent’s quasi social conscience and business partner is Larry Doyle. Graeme Somerville sears through the diatribes with indisputable conviction but—through no fault of his own—can’t make heads nor tails of his 18-year-absent “romance” with Nora who inexplicably abandons all hope for happiness with Larry before uttering an unconvincing “yes” to Tom’s instant offer of marriage only to be tossed out of the script’s final pages like a cheap Irish whore (unintentionally reinforcing the notion that it really is a man’s world). Even if seen metaphorically (Tom as “John Bull,” a.k.a. broad-chested caricature of Britannia; Nora as “frail Cathleen ni Houlihan” the slight personification of the nation of misfits, malingerers and revolutionaries”—according to program annotator Ann Saddlemeyer and others), summarily dumping her after “service” weakens the impact of Shaw’s otherwise marvellous discourse.
Ric Reid does double duty as the hard-luck Haffigans (Timothy the moocher in England; Matthew the proud-poor landowner in Rosscullen), adding much hilarity and bits of poignancy to the family portrait. The Church is presented by two vicars. Thom Marriott proves to be an appropriately wily Father Dempsey while Peter Keegan, his defrocked colleague-of-the-cloth, is brought to worldly life thanks to Jim Mezon’s deft utilization of understatement.
David Schurmann is delightfully honest in his hatred of the non-English populace being wooed by his electioneering master even as Mary Haney readily steps up to the plate as the play’s matriarch—equally adept at serving tea or zingers (“Faith I wouldn’t give it [seat in Parliament] to a man. It’s a few women they want … to stop their foolish blather.”).
William Schmuck’s savvy designs are at one with the era and terrain—notably the landscape mural that perfectly frames Keegan’s well-travelled parting gaze; the musical accompaniment also fits the bill, if a few decibels too rich to balance the intimate confines of the Court House Theatre.
All of that said, this a production that can’t help but stimulate further discussion as other “John Bulls” of the twenty-first century attempt to force their vision of efficiency on deliberately weakened islands—with a shoreline or not. JWR