Friday, July 1, 2011

(No.158) Shaw Festival: Heartbreak House & The Admirable Crichton

The Shaw Festival, staged each year in Niagara-On-The-Lake in Ontario, is marking its 50th season. Eleven plays are being presented in its four theatres.

Pat and I recently saw George Bernard Shaw's Heartbreak House which opened May 10 and runs through Oct.7 and we attended (in preview) J.M. Barrie's The Admirable Crichton (June 22 to Oct.29). Both productions are at the Festival Theatre.

Heartbreak House, which some have ranked among Shaw's best, isn't. However this season's Shaw Festival production, directed by Christopher Newton, the Festival's former artistic director, is more interesting than the reviews and ratings of Toronto newspaper theatre critics may have led readers to believe. Both the Globe and Mail's Kelly Nestruk (May 27) and the Toronto Star's Richard Ouzounian gave it 2 1/2 stars out of 4.

As is often the case in my experience the best and most insightful of the reviews of the play that I have read was by Robert Cushman in the National Post (May 28). Cushman, like the theatre critics of the New York Times, blessedly eschews assigning a star rating to a play.

Shaw wrote the play ca 1916 during World War I but it was not produced until 1920 in New York and 1921 in London. While he intended it as an indictment of the English class system and the precipice of war over which, in his view, English society's leadership had taken a generation, the play is in parts as much a comedy drama as straight drama.

Set in a Sussex country house in Sept.1914 it sees Ellie Dunn, her father and her fiance Boss Mangan invited to the house for a dinner party. She seeks to marry wealth and her fiance is a businessman and scoundrel, her father appears to be a timid bumbler and she's actually in love with her hostess' husband.

Shaw works hard at developing the theme that reality and appearance are separated by a chasm. Faithful to Shaw's concept, the Shaw production takes place in a large room designed to replicate the interior of an old-fashioned wooden sailing ship. Its owner is an old sea captain named Shotover.

Shaw's Heartbreak House is strongest in the first act when the dialogue reminds one a bit of Oscar Wilde. The second act is a bit less effective and in the third Shaw seems to me to have been trying too hard to drive home the 'message' of his play. The latter part of the play approaches the pretentious and the sententious.

This is the sixth time the Festival has mounted this play during its half century and twenty-five years since Newton last directed it. Given the material provided by the play this Shaw Festival production of Heartbreak House is, overall, a strong one -- as is its cast. It provides an interesting evening in the theatre.

The other play we saw during our latest Festival visit, The Admirable Crichton, was written in 1902 by J.M. Barrie, the Scottish playwright better known for having written Peter Pan. It too has its focus on the English class system and, although a comedy drama, is rooted in the observation by Arthur Conan Doyle that "if a king and an able seaman were to be wrecked together on a desert island, the sailor would end as king and the monarch as servant."

Barrie turned this seed into a play about the English class system. Lord Loam, his family and servants are shown in his London mansion where his lordship insists on his servants having tea once each month with him and his family -- much to the chagrin of his butler Crichton who opposes such role reversals. Then Lord Loam and his household, having set sail together in a private yacht, are marooned on a desert island. The roles of master and butler become reversed until the point at which everyone two years on is rescued.

The Shaw production's cast, led by Steven Sutcliffe as Crichton and Nicole Underhay as Lord Loam's daughter Mary, are more than capable. However their performances carry the burden of having to offset 'enhancements' of the Barrie play with which its director Morris Panych has lumbered the production. He has turned Barrie's play into a dog's breakfast.

This could easily have been avoided by not moving the setting of the play to the 1920s, by not inserting 1920s-style pop songs plus accompanying choreography into the play and by not having a half dozen performers masked in various animal and bird heads wearing grey suits and prancing about from time to time. This production of The Admirable Crichton is a curiosity and does not work as a half-baked musical.

Presenting a long and well established piece of English literature successfully as theatre can be done without recourse to the insertion of affectation and anachronism, no matter how precious a director or even theatre critics may think they are. I recall an excellent stage presentation a couple of seasons ago based on Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice by London, Ontario's Grand Theatre (artistic director Susan Ferley). It was a solid and enjoyable production which respected its source material and never left me wondering 'what in hell are they playing at?'.

Special note: Pat, my partner in theatre going as in life, does not agree with my critical comments about the Shaw's production of The Admirable Crichton. She enjoyed the play including the 'enhancements' in the Shaw Festival production to which I have just referred unfavourably.


Niagara-On-The-lake is a charming town in the heart of Ontario's wine country. Vineyards and good restaurants abound.

On this trip Pat and I enjoyed our meals at several restaurants:

-- Terroir La Cachette at the Strewn Winery []
-- Escabeche restaurant at the Prince of Wales Hotel []
-- Shaw Cafe and Wine Bar [www.]
-- Grill On King []
-- The Pub at the Moffat Inn []

Further contacts and resources:

-- (plays)
-- (information)
-- (B & Bs)
-- (theatre packages)

by Alastair Rickard