Friday, August 17, 2012


Reviewed by James Karas
**** (out of five)

For those who found the production of Misalliance at the Royal George Theatre less than amenable to their theatrical senses, the Shaw Festival has a perfect antidote in its staging of The Millionairess. It is well-paced, well-acted and just plain funny.

Bennard Shaw wrote The Millionairess in 1935 for the formidable and inimitable Edith Evans who turned the play down. It has had a chequered history since then but the Shaw Festival has been quite willing to produce it every decade or so.

The Millionairess of the title is the supremely wealthy Epifania Ognisanti di Parerga who goes to the office of her solicitor, Julius Sagamore to make her will and then commit suicide. He is prepared to draft her will and gives her a recipe and detailed instructions on how to end her life. Death is good business for lawyers.

Epifania’s husband Alastair and his hapless mistress Polly arrive at the solicitor’s office to be followed by Adrian, Epifania’s lover. We will soon meet an Egyptian Doctor and a couple that run a sweatshop.

Where is the fun? First, it is in Nicole Underhay’s performance as Epifania. Wearing a bright red dress and shoes to match, a mink stole slung around her neck, she is assertive, irreverent, exuberant, violent (when necessary) - all of which is wrapped up in a bravura performance by Underhay.

Epifania is not happy because she married the “inadequate” Alistair, a boxer, and he knocked her out on their wedding night and not by his sexual prowess. Epifania’s father instructed her to marry the man who can turn £150 into £50,000 in six months. Alistair is so stupid and foolish that he actually succeeds. Portia’s suitors in The Merchant of Venice only had to choose one of three caskets!

She has good help. Kevin Bundy as the somewhat straight-laced solicitor is given a few good lines but he does well as a straight man to Epifania’s extravagances.

Everyone is the punch bag to Epifania’s blows but no one as much as Polly, beautifully played as the dumb blonde by Robin Evan Willis. Turns out she is not all that dumb because she knows how to get her way.

Martin Happer as Alastair is stuck between his mistress and his wife with nowhere to go but up in laughter. But he is better off than Steve Sutcliffe’s Adrian who is beaten up and seriously injured by Epifania and stands no chance of getting any compensation or justice.

Michael Ball as Joe and Wendy Thatcher as his wife remove the play from its posh surroundings to a basement sweatshop where Epifania gives them a quick lesson on the workings of cutthroat capitalism. Ball and Thatcher are quite good in the relatively small roles.

Kevin Hanchard plays the Egyptian Doctor who is poor, Muslim and a Bolshevik. With credentials like that, he is a perfect foil for Epifania. Well done by Henchard.

Shaw manages to tackle social and financial issues, of course, and to satirize bankers and capitalism but he does it with a light touch and much less verbosity than in some of his other plays.

Blair Williams gets full marks for directorial finesse. He manages fine control of the action with very good pacing and plenty of fun. Designer Cameron Porteous draws more attention than usual to his art by providing some coups de théâtre in the scene changes. The designs are excellent within the severe limitations of the Court House Theatre. The first scene is dominated by bright red colours, including Epifania’s attire. The lawyer’s office would normally be decorated with law books and heavy furniture but that may have made scene changes more difficult. Porteous avoids all that and makes the scene changes a brief show in themselves.

An excellent night at the theatre.

The Millionairess by Bernard Shaw runs in repertory from June 20 to October 6, 2012 at the Court House Theatre in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario.

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