“Our love was like a crossword puzzle in which we both hit upon the last word at the same moment.”
—Constance, Act II
True humour is alive and well and effervescing in the Royal George Theatre until October 9. Those lucky enough to have tickets are in for an evening filled with wry observations (Mrs. Culver: “I’ve always noticed that the questions that really don’t need answering are the most difficult to answer …”), dry wit and laugh-out-loud jokes that have been tickling funny bones for nearly eight decades. Better still, (and unlike so much of what passes for humour in contemporary theatre, film and television), four letter words, bathroom jokes and stereotypical gay characters are relegated to the wings for their never-coming cues.
For three acts—all framed in William Schmuck’s magnificent “Italian” set—Maugham pillories privileged-class mores, marriage and love. The master of human nature provides baskets of lines for the protagonists (ably led by Laurie Paton’s Constance) and interminable introductions for Bentley, the stoic butler (presented with panache, flair and quiet dignity by Al Kozlik). But the prolific writer also lobs commonplace words—fertilizer and toothbrush become triggers of merriment—into the script, which brilliantly unleash tears-in-your-eyes laughter as they resonate timelessly with our shared experience.
However, if the playwright’s genius is to be fully exposed, then the ensemble’s timing, body language, beats and rhythm must also be seamlessly combined. This cast was most certainly up to the task. In his delightful portrayal of the adulterous John Middleton, Blair Williams gallantly led the way. The Shaw veteran’s delivery was near-perfect—daring his colleagues to keep up; his speaking tone and facial range were also spot on—he’d be an excellent choice to play John Cleese when his turn comes round on Biography . As his rival Bernard Kersal, Peter Krantz was all sweetness and charm, but it fell to the women to carry the show.
Once she found her tempo, Patricia Hamilton produced a totally convincing daughter-weary Mrs. Culver. Surprisingly, her youngest, Catherine McGregor as Martha, delivered the part in a pastel hue that seemed at odds with the primary timbres of her colleagues. Wendy Thatcher—foreshadowing Designing Women—was all business as Barbara Fawcett and Michael Ball was convincingly blusterous in his scene-stealing metamorphosis from outraged husband to forgiveness-begging wimp.
Paton soared through the script and imbued savvy confidence in every scene. Once she and her talented colleagues find their collective flow, the few remaining bumps will vanish and leave the audience wondering “Where did the time go?”
Throughout it all, Neil Munro brought his trademark surety and style to bear in a manner that kept his charges both challenged and inspired. The act-opening cameo shots—like sepia miniatures—a deft touch; the choice of Dick Hyman’s Forgotten Dreams - Archives of Novelty Piano (which triggered an echo of Gabriel Pierné’s Marche des Petits Soldats de Plomb) entirely apt, but the cast’s real-time “tinkling” of the grand piano’s “ivories” grated in comparison: cover the keys please.
In sum, The Constant Wife is a wonderful addition to this year’s playbill—don’t miss it! JWR