JWR Articles: Live Event - Our Betters (Director: Morris Panych) - May 25, 2013
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Our Betters

4.5 4.5

Of gesture and sound

Those who appreciate the subtleties that an extraordinarily creative director can bring to the stage will not want to miss Morris Panych’s worldly view of the result of American heiress/opportunists forcing themselves into lofty positions in British society by marrying their ways into titles (any available European aristocrat will do).

Like the genius of playwright Somerset Maugham letting an early-on “killing” story (marvellously retold by Neil Barclay as “no trace of accent” Daddy Moneybags Thornton Clay) deftly finding its full-cry re-enactment in the form of Lady (Pearl) Grayston’s late-inning explanation of the feline invaders’ calculating facts of wife to her astonished, naïve younger sister, Bessie (Julia Course, frequently too-loud-by-half but otherwise a model of awe and innocence), Panych makes every gesture of his cast and nearly every musical sound reinforce Maugham’s incredibly rich satire.

Small things first (the art is in the details).

How odd, it seemed, that during the initial appearances by men at Lady Grayston’s tony house they kept their hats despite the household’s ever-attentive pair of long-suffering servants (Anthony Bekenn is delightfully droll as Pole; ably assisted by James Pendarves—their pas de deux which opens Act II is a quiet treat of furniture staging) had to wait to the tail end of the final frame to find its payoff when “dancing master” Ernest (Pendarves again, readily stealing the show with this small role—yet how did the two-step morph to tango—and with no red rose?) gave Pole’s name new meaning when the sultan of the floor used the stoic butler as his own personal hat rack.

Those with a fondness for saucy were rewarded with several fleeting moments of naughty body language: Good-looking only (his lack of any other skill is hilariously described by old-enough-to-be-his-mother, apparent paramour, Duchesse de Surennes—Laurie Paton brings a compelling range of emotion that cougars everywhere can, pathetically, empathize with) Tony (enjoying every moment playing the cad is Charlie Gallant) made clear that his ascribed “merit” lurked invisibly, deep in his pantaloons; Clay’s overlong knee pat on the “Gee”, handsome Fleming Harvey (Wade Bogert-O’Brien was the show’s ideal catalyst as the only man with integrity) semi-discreetly raised the rainbow flag even as its intended tossed off a look that spoke subtle volumes; master of mirth Lorne Kennedy’s hand-in-his-pockets incredulous demonstration of amorous desire (despite his character, Moneybags II, Arthur Fenwick being publicly cuckolded by his one great love, Lady Grayston—whose titled husband, George, is often heard of but never seen) ripples briefly through his Saville Row threads.

The music was a somewhat hit and miss. The decidedly cheesy salon music (featuring an oily violin, setting up a coming script gag) drowned out some of Bessie’s opening remarks and over-stayed its welcome; the ensuing lavender song was so pastel that few would have caught its meaning until the lines reinforced by the encore. The remaining bits that reset the acts were ideally selected (the clarinet and bassoon so like lithe Tony and large Duchesse for Act III). Perfectly timed was the room-away spirited dance music interrupting a poignant declaration of love. Finally, a sad commentary on the collective state of audience knowledge could be felt all the way to Carnegie Hall when the line about getting [Fritz] “Kreisler” to play at the drop of a hat flew by completely unnoticed.

This matinée performance was not devoid of a number of stumbles, but featured some excellent performances. Ben Sanders displayed a wonderful range of emotion as the penniless lovesick Lord Bleane. Claire Jullien was perfectly conniving and egotistical (clearly believing her own press releases) as Lady Grayston. As Princess della Cercota, Catherine McGregor took a very thoughtful approach coming to terms with the price she has paid to be in society.

Yet none of this would have been possible without Panych’s vision and ability to take risks: see, hear and feel for yourself. JWR

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