With J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan successfully flying about the Avon Theatre at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival this season, it’s a marvellous bit of programming coincidence that the Shaw Festival selected his bite-size play of morality-run-aground for its lunchtime offering.
Director Gina Wilkinson’s vision of this concise study of “if onlys” (e.g., If only my illicit lover had had the good sense to go on living after I’d so dramatically abandoned my brute of a husband) has a lot to do and say in its sparse 30 minutes of runtime. At one with the playwright, she makes every second count, crafting a delectable theatrical confection that had many in the opening day crowd wishing for a second helping.
The conceit of time binds all of the scenes together. The “overture” consists of the increasingly loud winding up of a Victorian clock. As Tyler Sainsbury’s effective lighting plot finds its first target, it espies Michael Ball in traditional tails and more than capable of acing his twin roles as the all-seeing narrator and Withers, the long-serving butler. The former serves as Barrie’s spokesperson, the latter provides hilariously droll looks and appearances that fuel much of the mirth at a full-dress dinner party where—but for some delightfully contrived coincidences—crow might have been on the menu.
Absolutely magical is the top of the hour, igniting a cuckoo-clock mini-meet-the-cast ballet before the xylophone-rich salon music accompanies a warring couple whose marriage is built solidly on the lure of unimaginable wealth rather than mutual desire.
At the centre of it all is Lady Lilian. Diana Donnelly soars through the role with the requisite emotional range and a farewell kiss that won’t quit—adding even more pathos as her dam-building lover prepares for their escape to Egypt. Hugh Paton, playing Lilian’s lover Gord Rand, makes a dashing adventurer who’d be equally at home on the Jolly Roger—stealing lost boys instead of discontented trophy wives. She’s at her wit’s end, having—literally—been purchased (“for $20,000—I wouldn’t have taken you for 10”) by the lecherous, selfish, unfeeling Richard Garson. Peter Krantz serves up He-who-must-be-obeyed with a great mix of savoured abuse and pent-up carnal craving.
The opening-scene battle pushes Lilian over the edge. In the heat of anger she pens a Dear John note, pulls off her wedding ring and, along with a priceless emerald necklace, stuffs the lot into a writing-table drawer knowing her over-lording husband will find it sooner or later. Better still, they are expecting company for dinner: how marvellous to shame him in front of his friends once they realize she’s flown from the life of untold riches to take her chances with a mere draughtsman.
In an inspired bit of stagecraft, the ensuing attic scene is quite literally tossed onto the boards via the Royal George Theatre’s trap door. The highflying sheer curtains instantly cover the mansion’s opulence, serving as yet another reminder of Barrie’s childlike delight with his trade. Only Tinker Bell was missing. Instead, Jennifer Dzialoszynski delivered an engagingly airy portrait of Susie, the youngest member of the boarding house proprietors whose top-storey lodger is about to elope with a married woman.
Seems a lot already for such a short timespan, but there’s nary a word, gesture or sound wasted as the surprises start to mount in Lilian’s desperate attempt at happiness. Camille Saint-Saëns’ Danse Macabre more than lives up to its name as the swirling music supports both the madcap action and tragedy to come.
Gluing everything together is Dr. Brodie (Peter Millard). At his first encounter with Lilian, he delivers some devastating news in his best bedside manner, only to turn up on the guest list (along with the ever-welcome comedic antics of Laurie Paton and Norman Browning) moments later after the lady of the manor swallows her pride and heads back to the shackles of a secure existence.
How does all of this come about? Take 30 minutes from your schedule and see as the Shaw Festival proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that good things do come in very small packages. JWR