Reviewed by James Karas
Shaw Festival, thank you for Our Betters.
Our Betters is a play by Somerset Maugham that is now playing at the Royal George Theatre in Niagara-on-the-Lake. It has never been produced at the Shaw Festival and I dare say most of us have never heard of, let alone have seen, this pleasant comedy.
Maugham wrote Our Betters in 1915 and took up the then familiar topic of rich American heiresses marrying titled but financially strapped Englishmen. “You give me a coronet and I will bring over a few million dollars” was the bargain. No love or attraction or any other boring middle class sentiments required.
American Pearl Saunders (Claire Jullien) married an English baronet and became Lady Grayston of Grosvenor Square, Mayfair. Read: posh. Her sister Bessie (Julia Course) has arrived from America and Pearl has set the wheels in motion to find her a poor peer to marry.
Pearl is just one of a group of loaded Yanks who married pauper peers. Minnie (Laurie Paton) became the Duchesse de Surennes and Flora (Catherine McGregor) rose to Princess della Cercola.
Pearl has become a force in English society and is a serial adulteress, in fact, a slut. She offers her body for sex and money. Minnie has money therefore she can afford to buy sex and she finances a gigolo.
The play does have a centre of morality represented by Bessie, her American friend Fleming (Wade Bogert-O’Brien) and Flora who has come to terms with what she did and what she has become.
The rather straightforward and predictable plot has many pleasures. Jullien is the perfect society woman; a smart and manipulative trend-setter who uses men as if they are mere toys. She is counter-balanced by Course’s well-done Bessie: a decent woman who almost falls into the same trap as Lady Grayston.
Paton gives us a pathetic cougar as the aging Duchesse who has nothing but money and sexual desire left. McGregor is excellent as the smart and perceptive Princess and Lorne Kennedy is perfect as the rich, pretentious and not-too-bright Fenwick, mere putty in the hands of Pearl who milks him for his money.
Many Canadian actors have considerable difficulty affecting that cut-diamond, upper crust English accent. In Our Betters the problem is partially solved because we have Americans trying to do an English accent. They do it indifferently but that is precisely what we expect of them. There is a problem with the characters who are in fact English and Canadian actors must struggle to deliver the chiseled goods.
Both Charles Gallant as the gigolo Tony and Ben Sanders as Lord Bleane, the man who wants to marry Bessie, have that problem. This becomes more pronounced because Neil Barclay as the super-sized American Thornton Clay pretends to be a perfect Englishman. He is just a boorish American, of course, and his accent is perfect and his performance very good.
The play is set in a drawing room in Mayfair and the morning room in the country (if you are rich you can afford rooms for different times of the day!). Set Designer Ken MacDonald does a splendid job. The Mayfair set is all beige and most of the costumes are of similar hue. This creates a rarefied and unreal world of elegance. The morning room with its patterned wall-paper and leather couches strikes a different note of opulence that is so rich and so country. Flick your wrist, please.
Morris Panych directs with panache. The timing, the pace, the humour are all worked superbly. They do not make social circles or plays like the world of Our Betters but it is a sheer pleasure to visit both for a couple of hours in Niagara-on-the-Lake for a wonderful night (or afternoon) at the theatre._____
Our Betters by W. Somerset Maugham will run in repertory until October 27, 2013 at the Royal George Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. www.shawfest.com.