It’s such a glorious thing when wit, wisdom, art, talent and insight all come together on the same stage. Blair Williams’ production of George Bernard Shaw’s pillory of a woman with more money than she could ever spend and brains is worth its weight in gold.
With such taut, biting, hilarious material, many would be tempted just to secure a versatile leading lady (Nicole Underhay suits the title part of Epifania Ognisanti di Parerga to a T—breaking a chair was never funnier; her droll delivery is, well, an epiphany of its own: another full-range comedienne from the Shaw in the making) and simply construct a show that goes hard and fast for every possible laugh.
Yet it’s abundantly evident from the first strums of Julius Sagamore’s (the playwright’s names are marvellously at one with his characters’ characters) ukulele (following the “overture” that readily sets the tone with ABBA’s “Money, Money, Money” burbling out of the loudspeakers) that the comedy to come will be multilayered. Deftly plucking out “shave and a haircut: five cents,” Kevin Bundy’s portrayal of the lawyer-of-everybody is a snappy, razor-sharp foil to the covey of clients seeking his services.
As the principal cast members dutifully make their way into Sagamore’s quarters, it’s soon clear that designer Cameron Porteous is seeing red: from the office walls to di Parerga’s crimson head-to-toe attire to lipstick, boutonniere—even the Tiny Tim’s favourite instrument—there’s a wonderful unity of purpose that not only draws the troupe into a singular hue (all the better to emphasize their considerable differences) but also raises the intriguing question, If red leads the way, what will follow in the three remaining scenes? As they unfold, their effect moves from stark contrast to subliminal quiet (anyone who has ever been short of “green” will identify with the sweatshop’s colourization) to “all that glitters”—including a pair of crutches, no less,—these visual details ideally reinforce Shaw’s points and Williams’ vision. The icing on the design cake comes in the form of snippets of Emmanuel Chabrier’s España, judiciously inserted (thanks in large part to sound designer Dmitri Marine, who also reminds everyone that “Money can’t buy me love” on the way back to reality) that are at one with the human-circus moments in the play.
Martin Happer readily exudes his affable charm and athletic past in the role of Alastair Fitzfassenden, di Parerga’s cuckolded husband (she much prefers her oh-so-European maiden moniker to his consonant-laden surname). Rather than sign today’s more common pre-nuptial agreement for the excessively wealthy, the muscled groom had to turn ₤150 into ₤50,000 to tie the knot. (That he did so by becoming a two-sets-of-books producer is made all the more believable thanks to the well-known escapades of Garth Drabinsky et al. Thank goodness—like the 2008 financial collapse—that will never happen again!)
The apple (red, no doubt) in Alastair’s eye is Patricia Smith, a.k.a. Polly Seedystockings, owing to her reliance on her lover for the bare necessities of life. Robin Evan Willis plays the penniless-but-sage, confidently aloof other woman with compelling poise and flare for getting in her digs (and Shaw’s!) but never upstaging the cash-rich, love-poor star.
As Shaw remarks in his preface:
The diplomatists immediately indulges themselves with a prodigiously expensive war, after which the capitalist system, which had undertaken to fund employment for everybody at subsistence wages, and which, though it had never fulfilled that undertaking, had at least found employment for enough of them to leave the rest too few to be dangerous….
To further hammer his thesis home, Act III is set in a basement sweatshop where Joe (Michael Ball) and his wife (Wendy Thatcher) eke out a living by paying unlawfully low wages to their girls—paying a decent salary would put him out of business. Di Parerga immediately takes it upon herself (and her wealth) to take out the middle man and brighten the longsuffering (“no holiday since Armistice”) couple’s and their employees’ lot. Sadly, the resulting “improvements” bring on a stroke for Joe and mind loss for his worn-out bride. Without this excursion, the play’s bite and hilarity would be greatly diminished. Ball and Thatcher infuse just the right amounts of hope and despair to give the madcap finale its place in the golden sun.
As the colour-conscious journey ends, di Parerga’s current paramour (the Egyptian physician is superbly rendered by the employment of Kevin Hanchard’s understated humour—praise Allah indeed) gets the hots for his sudden patient solely because her pulse is so slow. What better way to prove that The Millionairess is made of ice, much to the delight of one. JWR