The novelty item for this 50th anniversary season of the Shaw Festival comes in the form of J.J. Barrie’s whimsical tale, The Admirable Crichton.
Rather than merely put the 1902 play on the Festival Theatre’s ample stage, Ryan de Souza was put to work arranging seven flapper era songs for a Palm Court-like orchestra. Especially effective were Irving Berlin’s “Shakin’ the Blues Away” and Ray Henderson’s “It All Depends on You.”
Barrie’s considerable commentaries/narration in the script were given over to some marvellously hooded (Charlotte Dean’s costuming was a highlight all on its own) animals, led by wily Billy Lake as The Wolf and featuring Heather McGuigan’s Crow, Devon Tullock’s Fox, Kiera Sangster’s Hare, Katie Murphy’s Hedgehog and Jonathan Tan’s Crane—Animal Farm of a much gentler kind. With Radio City Music Hall stage mics to croon to and some fine ukulele (also de Souza) interventions varying the tone, only more consistently accurate intonation could have improved the imaginative staging by ever-inventive director Morris Panych.
With so much music added to the narrative mix, it fell to choreographer Valerie Moore to bring further zest to the production. While the somewhat conservative between-scenes pieces artfully passed the time, it was the especially creative, in-front-of-the-scrim shipwreck that dazzled during the show. But once the curtain fell, all of the stops were pulled out for an all-hands-on-deck production number that would be a hit on Broadway in any era (and a deft bit of business allowed the title character’s first love to take a turn around the floor with her hope for the future—filling in a possible blank for the playwright’s otherwise stiff upper-lip ending). Not even the slight distortion of the reinforced sound could spoil the fun.
The story centres on natural selection, largely the place in life of masters and slaves. In the Earl of Loam’s (David Schurmann) manor, the servant brigade is enthusiastically headed by Crichton (Steven Sutcliffe). The dutiful butler knows his place on both sides of the domestic divide. He abhors being pandered to by his betters and insists on establishing and maintaining his own strict rule over the rest of the staff: “That disdain is what we like from our superiors. Even so do we, the upper servants, disdain the lower servants, while they take it out on the odds and ends,” he explains to one of his employer’s three daughters, Lady Mary Lasenby (Nicole Underhay).
As the play begins, the monthly role-reversal tea is about to take place. To deftly demonstrate just how the apparently magnanimous don’t truly understand—much less believe—what they say, Barrie has Lord Loam utter: “And remember this, Crichton, for the time being you are my equal. (Testily.) I shall soon show you whether you are not my equal. Do as you are told.” Few writers could so succinctly sum up the hypocrisy of the privileged.
But what might happen if the household tables were fundamentally turned?
The creator of Peter Pan has just the answer: send the family along with selected servants to sea on a yacht and have it shipwrecked within a few hundred yards of an uninhabited island. Et voilà! Without his inherited, sweatshop earned wealth, Lord Loam’s royal jelly vanishes. Having always known how to fend for himself and see the possibilities in the most mundane items (an abandoned hairpin becomes the perfect metaphor: beauty accessory or garment stitching needle?), Crichton lets the universal process of natural selection take its course and soon becomes the “Gov.” while his boss happily serves his de facto provider, taking the title of “Daddy.”
As the principal men, Schurmann makes for a delightfully dotty landowner (an early memory lapse at the unity tea being a prime example) while Sutcliffe turns a marvellously nuanced performance that expertly captures the pride of subservience in England and the quiet lust for power in the middle of nowhere—it’s the same level of quality that Peter Sellers brought to the 1979 film, Being There.
In the supporting roles, Mary’s sisters are engagingly carried off by Cherissa Richards and Moya O’Connell—all three embrace their newly found freedom from society with convincing tomboy antics. Marla McLean is appropriately stoic as Tweeny, the “in-between” maid with a heart of gold who stands by her man whether he knows it or not. The brief appearance once back home by the purposely “disagreeable” Lady Brocklehurst was a late-inning hit thanks to Gabrielle Jones’ commanding tone.
Playing the Honourable Ernest Woolley, Kyle Blair was fetchingly naïve, getting the show’s best laugh in the finest tradition of Pavlov’s dog. Martin Happer’s Reverend John Treherne excelled when only the collar remained of his “uniform,” revelling in his own soul rather than purporting to save others.
Panych has brought Barrie’s work to new life, all dressed up with colour, movement and sound—be sure to see it before it weighs anchor! JWR