Monday, August 24, 2009



by James Karas

In 1935-36 Noel Coward wrote nine one-act plays to be produced in groups of three under the title Tonight at 8:30. He added a tenth play called Star Chamber but it was performed only once before he withdrew it. The first nine plays have been produced in bits and pieces at the Shaw Festival over the years but never all ten together.

In what can only be described as a bold move, artistic director Jackie Maxwell has decided to produce all ten in one season. It is a venture that is worthy of loud applause and a chance to see the plays that is simply not to be missed.

There are three groups of three plays and one, Star Chamber, is shown alone during lunchtime. As may be expected, the boldness in selection is not always equaled in the quality of execution of the first three one-acters but the overall result is still enjoyable and, repeat, not to be missed.


The first three plays are presented at the Festival Theatre under the title Brief Encounters. Still Life and We Were Dancing are about brief and illicit love affairs. Hands Across the Sea has an almost farcical plot about mistaken identity.

Still Life is perhaps best known as the film Brief Encounter with Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard. Laura Jesson (Deborah Hay) quite accidentally meets a Dr. Alec Harvey (Patrick Galligan) in the refreshment room of a railroad station. The doctor removes a speck from her eye and the two, married and reserved middle-class English people, fall in love. They continue meeting at the railroad station and make one pathetic and unsuccessful attempt at consummating the affair but we only see them in the refreshment room.

A dingy railroad station, and two reserved people make for a poor source of fervent expressions of grand passion. You take the two of them at their word that by reserved English standards they are deeply in love and the sad end of the affair is inevitable. Coward does show us the other side of English love in the lower class workers at the railroad station who are far more demonstrative but what do you expect from the lower classes? I found Hay more convincing than Galligan but I wished that some more of their passion came across.

For We Were Dancing Coward takes us to a country club setting on the exotic Island of Samolo. This is no railroad station and Karl (Patrick Galligan) falls madly in love with Louise (Deborah Hay) right in front of her husband Hubert (Thom Marriott). Karl and Louise were dancing and were swept off their feet with love. Unlike, Laura and Alec, they show no reserve, not even a modicum of good manners, as they declare their passion for each other. This love affair dissipates as quickly as it arises and there is no time to consummate it. Issues arise, problems appear and the course of their love comes to a fork in the road. We Were Dancing is broadly comic and the love affair is more farcical than passionate.

Hands Across the Sea has a different texture from the first two plays. It is set in a fancy flat in London where some well-travelled and well-heeled people act and overact in very silly ways. The Gilpins (Deborah Hay and Patrick Galligan) are expecting some people that Lady Gilpin met in the Far East. Mr. and Mrs. Wadhurst (Thom Marriott and Corrine Koslo) arrive and they are generally ignored or spoken to in very strange ways. There is clearly a problem here as the busy Gilpins and their friends flit around and the result is some good comedy.

The playlets have a charm of their own but they do require a finesse of acting and accent that is frequently lacking in Canadian actors. In the end we know what they are getting at and appreciate the effort while all the time knowing that the type of comedy that Coward wrote is at times out of their reach. The plays are directed by Jackie Maxwell.


The second trio entitled Play, Orchestra, Play, consists of Red Peppers, Fumed Oak and Shadow Play. The three playlets are funny, charming and have a tinge of sadness all their own. Red Peppers is about song-and-dance couple (Jay Turvey and Patty Jamieson) who are bickering as their way of life is disappearing. The movies have arrived and the music hall is on its way out. The wife makes a mistake during their exit and the two start arguing over it only to be interrupted by the house manager and turn their energies on him. The fight gets worse when the conductor arrives. It is funny and touching.

Fumed Oak presents a henpecked husband (Steven Sutcliffe) who lives with his bitch of a wife (Patty Jamieson), whining daughter (Robin Evan Willis) and an even worse mother-in-law (Wendy Thatcher). His submissiveness for fifteen years gives way to an explosion of energy in which he tells his wife and mother-in-law and daughter to stuff it. He has saved some money and he is going on a ship to anywhere but where he is. Comedy framed in a very sad situation with fine performances.

Shadow Play is about a couple on the verge of divorce. They have found other lovers and Simon (Steven Sutcliffe) tells Victoria (Julie Martell) that he wants a divorce. She has just taken three sleeping pills and dreams of happier days with Simon. The play has eleven characters and half a dozen musical numbers as it moves through moments in the lives of Simon and Stella. Quite a beautiful production.

Play, Orchestra, Play is skillfully directed by Christopher Newton at the Royal George Theatre.


Star Chamber, at the royal George Theatre, is a hilarious gem that will strike a chord with anyone who has attended a committee meeting. To make things worse, these are all actors who are meeting about some charitable cause. No one is on time, they talk to each other instead of listening and leave when they feel like it. Neil Barclay is outstandingly funny among a very entertaining cast directed by Kate Lynch.


The final trio of plays is staged at the Court House Theatre under the title Ways of the Heart and consists of The Astonished Heart, Family Album and Ways and Means.

The Astonished Heart has a complex structure for a one-act play. It is divided in seven scenes and moves back and forth in time. It tells the story of a renowned psychiatrist (David Jansen) who falls in love with Leonora (Claire Julien), a worldly woman and his wife’s worldly friend.

It is a dramatic piece about passionate love, betrayal and ultimate disappointment. Laurie Paton is the plump, faithful wife in a marriage that has seen better days. Julien is the femme fatale that oozes sexual attraction and knows how to get her man. The end is disastrous but the performances under the direction of Blair Williams are superb.

In Family Album, the large Featherways family is gathered shortly after Papa’s death and the reading of his will. They are a stuffy Victorian family who display grief and reverence for the dearly departed and then decide to have a toast. One toast leads to another and they all break into song. More toasts and more songs and the somber atmosphere dissipates into revels.

The large cast is excellent with notable mentions of Laurie Paton as the older spinster Lavinia, Patrick McManus as Jasper and Lisa Codrington as Emily. Being a family gathering and a funereal occasion, the characters are dressed alike. Michael Ball has the small role of the servant Burrows. He practically steals the show as he staggers in carrying drinks and is hard of hearing, especially of things he does not want to hear. A delightful piece.

In Ways and Means we move to more familiar Coward territory, the world of the sophisticated and somewhat eccentric upper crust on the Riviera. Stella (Claire Jullien) and Toby (David Jansen) are having breakfast in bed, wearing silk pajamas, in a fancy house on the Côte d’Azur. They have lost their last franc gambling and are at the end of their mooching rope.

They bitch and bicker with wit and sophistication as they search for a desperate remedy for their impecuniosity. Jansen and Jullien carry the whole thing off with aplomb. Patrick McManus is very good as Stevens, the former valet who was unceremoniously dismissed from his former position which included servicing the wife of his employer. Jenny Young makes a short appearance as the Russian Princess Elena and manages a horrible accent. It is one thing to be less than perfect when doing an accent but this was really bad.

In the end, the production of the ten plays amounts to an outstanding achievement.

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