The best little Madam from George Bernard Shaw’s imagination has set up shop in staid Niagara-on-the-Lake and will be preaching the value of vigorously engaging in the world’s oldest profession until early November. Led by Jackie Maxwell’s less-is-more, let-the-frequently-long-but-bitingly-crafted-speeches-speak-for-themselves direction and a bravura performance from Mary Haney in the title role, this is a show about the joy of intercourse-for-hire that should stimulate discourse like never before. Except for the countless thousands (should they reflect deeply) who may come to the uncomfortable realization that many of the wily playwright’s satiric barbs are directed pointedly at themselves.
In his own words: “If poverty does not matter as long as it is contented, then crime does not matter as long as it is unscrupulous.” How the prolific writer could find countless examples in today’s global economy where jobs frequently relocate to the lowest bidder and even theatre producers (surely not in Canada!) are hauled before a judge when their creative accounting (a.k.a. fraud) steps without costume, makeup and hair into the limelight of criminal court.
The drama (one of three that are grouped as “Plays Unpleasant”) concerns one of Mrs. Kitty Warren’s infrequent visits to egghead daughter, Vivie (Moya O’Connell digs deep and successfully draws a cold, unforgiving character upon the balance sheet of life where her fondest wish is to become an actuary and never take a day of vacation). Up to this point, the young number cruncher has little knowledge of her mother’s work and even less as to the identity of her father. Money is no problem for Vivie, a generous allowance appears monthly; wisely (she rationalizes) the source of these funds that have given her a first-rate education, stylish clothes and a quiet country house is never discussed.
To set his table for the mother-daughter confrontations that must come, Shaw populates Sue Lepage’s beautifully crafted sets (the last-act legal chambers is a marvel of detail) with men who have “known” Kitty in one way or another for some time. Praed, architect and art lover (David Jansen) comes to the cottage gate first and quickly learns that the fetching financial wizard could care less about opera or the theatre. “Outside mathematics, lawn-tennis, eating, sleeping, cycling and walking, I’m a more ignorant barbarian than any other woman could possibly be …,” she explains. This is in total contrast to her worldly mom who early on figured out that instead of being exploited by greedy men as either a tavern server or slave to their children, she could comfortably make her own way as short-term illicit lust brought in more cash from one trick than a month of long days and near-subsistence wages. Mrs. Warren’s unstoppable revenge fuck became so successful that she opened several “houses” in the capitals of Europe.
Her business partner (both monkey and financing) is the next man on the scene. Sir George Crofts (Benedict Campbell, making the most of the heady mix of unabashed lechery and zinger lines) provided Mrs. Warren’s expansion capital and has profited handsomely. An enterprise that returns 35% in its worst years was nothing to sneeze at. The two partners have both made sizeable fortunes, er, on the backs of women but have no qualms about what others might think: “If you’re going to pick and choose your acquaintances on moral grounds, you’d better clear out of this country, unless you want to cut yourself out of all decent society,” advises the parasite after his offer of wealth and marriage has been summarily dismissed by the calculating old-maid in waiting.
It falls to father and son to complete the testosterone quartet. The Reverend Samuel Gardner has long ago sampled Mrs. Warren’s delights and foolishly penned her enough letters to keep him under her control forever. Rumour has it, they may have spawned a love child …. Ric Reid plays the wayward vicar with such style and comedic sense that his Act III hangover-from-hell scene should be filmed and immediately granted a place in the Comedy Hall of Fame. His skills are all the more appreciated by those who came expecting The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas and had to settle for a moral thrashing of ruthless capitalists.
Son Frank (Andrew Bunker, boyish and chauvinistic at will) knows he’ll never amount to anything and that Father Dad can’t support him, so must woo a wealthy woman if he’s to maintain his lay-about life. By journey’s end he’s also fallen victim to the icy “Vivums.”
The final confrontation between Kitty and Vivie is a knockout. An earlier reconciliation was scuttled in a fit of rejection-rage by Crofts as he let more of the family secrets out than a gentleman would. Haney and O’Connell duke it out with a stunning range of emotion and a marvellously Steinbeckian sense of what can become of two women struggling to better the lot of each other. JWR