Stage Door

Stage Door Reviews of
The Grand Theatre 1996/97 Season

Private Lives

by Noël Coward
The Grand Theatre, London
October 8 to 26, 1996

a co-production with Canadian Stage Company, Toronto
A Stage Door Review by Roger Kershaw and Jim Lingerfelt
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Private Lives, sharp and sexy

The new Canadian Stage Company (Toronto) / The Grand Theatre (London) co-production of Noël Coward's witty and urbane Private Lives has arrived at The Grand Theatre in London. Unsettling, sharp and sexy, this story of passionate love contains some of Coward's most entertaining lines and forms an enduring love story.
-----The sparkling script concerns a divorced couple with a love-hate relationship who accidentally meet at a hotel in the south of France, albeit honeymooning with new spouses. The play begins in adjoining hotel suites, the newly married Elyot and Sibyl arriving first. She is obsessed about her new husband's first wife, Amanda. From the second suite, Amanda and her new husband, Victor, enter. He too is fascinated to hear about Amanda's first husband, Elyot. Soon, Elyot and Amanda find themselves on the terrace and begin to reminisce. They are quick to discover that while their marriage was both heaven and hell, they long to be together again. They recklessly plan their escape to Amanda's apartment in Paris. Act Two takes place several days later and finds the happy couple enjoying a blissful time together with little regret and even less worry for Victor and Sibyl. However, their reminiscences about past affairs becomes more and more angry until they are fighting with renewed passion. Victor and Sibyl enter just as the fight reaches its climax in a spectacular display of verbal fireworks!
-----Director Glynis Leyshon has assembled a top flight cast and created a wonderful production full of life and effervescence. Leyshon has said "Coward fails when played coolly. What's needed to lift the words off the page is acting that reveals the magnetic passion between the pair." She has succeeded in this by casting Albert Schultz as a wonderfully debonair Elyot Chase, and Brenda Robins as tart, passionate and erudite Amanda Prynne. These two actors create one of the theatre's most engaging couples. Patrick Galligan plays Amanda's new husband, while Lindsay Leese is Elyot's delightfully outrageous new young wife.
-----Set and costume design is by Pam Johnson, with lighting by Luc Prairie. The Toronto appearance runs until October 26 and comes highly recommended for an evening of high-spirited wit and crackling repartee. Tickets (from ($23 to $40) may be obtained by calling the box office at 1-800-265-1593.

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Great Expectations

by Charles Dickens, adapted for the stage by Michael Shamata
The Grand Theatre, London
December 3 to 28, 1996
A Stage Door Review by Roger Kershaw and Jim Lingerfelt
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With a timeless story, proven cast, great set designer, and a perfectionist artistic director doing the adaptation and direction, we expected great things from Charles Dickens' Great Expectations, now playing at The Grand in London. However, as Mrs Joe accuses young Pip-"Questions, so many questions!"-we have many.
----- Is Dickens' tome simply too large to compress to a stage? Was David Lean's magisterial movie adaptation such a benchmark that nothing else can compare? Were our expectations dashed by the pre-season brochure promising the luminescent Patricia Collins as the cantankerous Miss Havisham, only to find too-young Kate Trotter sleepwalking through the role?
----- Michael Shamata's adaptation, though extremely well intentioned, misses the mark. Despite seamless set changes, accomplished by using a minimalist set where for example a blacksmith's bench doubles as an accountant's desk, the result, rather than making the play easy to follow, confused the story. Important foreshadowing is often lost on an audience that might be unfamiliar with the classic tale. Be very familiar with Dickens' plot before you venture into Shamata's interpretation.
----- The story concerns orphaned Pip, who from the age of seven has been cared for by his sister and her husband, smithy Joe Gargery. From two events, reclusive Miss Havisham's desertion by her fiancé on her wedding day and the young Pip's aid to an escaped prisoner, Dickens weaves a story of vindictiveness and gratitude. The motives combine to affect the life of young Pip for Miss Havisham has marked him as an object of her vindictiveness, while a prisoner has sworn to reward the boy.
----- Pip is played by John Ullyatt (Stage Door Award-nominee for his role as Henrik in Shamata's A Little Night Music). Ullyatt, too old for the role even at the very end of the play, when Pip is just twenty, is positively unbelievable as an orphaned seven year old. He allows the script to convey his age and aging process, rather than his otherwise recognized talents. Pip's guardians are played by Stratford Festival veterans Deborah Drakeford and Oliver Dennis. Drakeford screeches through the role of Mrs Joe with a Cockney accent, not only irritating but totally inappropriate to their marsh country locale. Dennis is one of the few bright lights in this mis-cast cast, both in his portrayal of brow-beaten Joe Gargery and as the lawyer's lackey, Mr Wemmick, who later befriends Pip in London.
----- The one true star in the production is the renowned Douglas Campbell, who, as dying prisoner Magwitch, provides the only moment of sincere emotion in the play. Yet alas, Campbell is trapped in a second role, as Wemmick's simpering Aged Parent whose quirky nature brings quick laughter but soon grates.
----- Playing the part of Dickens' Miss Havisham, a "lonely, embittered old spinster who has devoted her life to vengeance," is the young and sweet-faced Kate Trotter, whose considerable talents are simply insufficient to portray a woman in her seventies, especially when dressed in a silky, sexy negligée.
----- The part of Havisham's ward, Estella, so memorably played in the movie by Jean Simmons, is destroyed here by Kristen Thomson. Thomson somnambulates though the role of the acid-tongued heart-stealer, and, not content to butcher just that role, continues to eviscerate the role of Pip's sweet friend Biddy, Dickens' two vastly different characters becoming indistinguishable in Shamata's production.
----- Filling out the cast are Michael Hanrahan and Jonathan Higgins. Hanrahan plays Mr Jaggers, the London lawyer representing both Miss Havisham and Abel Magwitch, with the essence of legal efficiency in a 19th century barrister. Higgins masters four roles, as Orlick (Gargery's journeyman), a soldier, Camilla Pocket, and most enjoyably as Pip's debonair roommate, Herbert Pocket.
----- The award-winning John Ferguson's set is a cross between an anemic Sunset Blvd and a budget Phantom. The main level is cluttered with the trappings of smithy cum kitchen cum lawyer's office cum London flat, and tangled with lines and pulleys that were both distracting and hazardous (Ullyatt actually tripped once). Descending from the fly is Havisham's cobweb-festooned, candelabra-fitted parlour and, separately descendent, dining room with wedding breakfast still on the table. More hazards: the slightest movement of the actors perched in these wobbly catwalks sends candles (luckily electric) flying. A design highlight, and candidate for the year's best special effect, is Kevin Fraser's lighting of Miss Havisham's fiery death.
----- Great Expectations is playing at The Grand in London until December 28. For tickets ($23 to $40) phone the box office at 1-800-265-1593.
----- Our recommendation? Read the book. Rent the movie.

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Three Tall Women

by Edward Albee
The Grand Theatre, London
February 11 to March 1, 1997
A Stage Door Review by Roger Kershaw and Jim Lingerfelt
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Pat Hamilton stands Tall in Grand production

Less than a year after Michael ("The Waltons") Learned brought her touring version of Edward Albee's Three Tall Women to Toronto's Royal Alexandra, Michael Shamata is staging this 1994 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama on his London stage, featuring Patricia Hamilton, in a production well worth the wait for local audiences.

----- Acknowledged by the author as autobiographical without being "a revenge piece," Three Tall Women uses as its centrepiece Albee's adoptive mother, who, like the demanding woman in the play, was a former fashion mannequin. She married an heir to a chain of successful vaudeville houses. Although it is often printed that she drove Edward out of the house because of his homosexuality, Albee has said that he left home at 18 to avoid the "suffocation." Albee went 25 years without speaking to his parents, and mother and son never reconciled. The media have speculated that Three Tall Women is, in a sense, that reconciliation. Although Albee has said that he is no more fond of his mother now than when he started writing the play, he was able to come to terms with her life and understand her, much as the three tall women gradually come to terms with their past, present and future. Albee has said "I didn't want to write her as a bitch. I wanted to end up with an accurate portrait. It was a kind of exorcism.... She was destructive, but she had lots of reasons to be. It's there on stage, all the good stuff and the bad stuff. I just tried to examine it, sort it out, be objective about it."

----- The central character ("A"), based unflinchingly on his adoptive mother, is autocratic, bigoted and self-centred, but ultimately the audience comes to respect and admire her. As the play opens, A, now 91 (or is it 92?) years old, is attended by her 52-year-old hired companion "B" as they are visited by 26-year-old legal assistant, "C." Albee weaves an emotional web of inter-related dreams and disappointments among the three women who share more than just being tall. Each looks at life from her unique perspective, forward to the unknown, backward in a nostalgic haze, or from the middle, in the enviable position B describes as "old enough to recognize all the shit around you but too old to want to play in it."

----- Director Joseph Ziegler is back at The Grand (If We Are Women), and is currently starring in CBC-TV's Black Harbour. Ziegler has done an outstanding job of building a cohesive spirit among the three principals.

----- Patricia Hamilton completely steals the show as A, a cantankerous old widow who has lost control of her life and bodily functions. In a characterization that swiftly kicks us from despair to hilarity, Hamilton sets the role afire. Hamilton comes to Tall Women from her towering performances in several gender-switching roles in Canadian Stage Company's productions of Angels in America.

----- Playing "B" is Maggie Hucalak, in her Grand debut. In a difficult role (this was Michael Learned's position in the touring production), Hucalak tries, but is not quite able to convince us she is 52 years old. We found her termagant character cold and unyielding, and ultimately failing to elicit some of the sympathy that Albee surely must have intended.

----- Torri Higginson, also in her Grand debut, plays C. (Did anyone catch her in The English Patient?) A wonderful talent, she presents the wide-eyed wonderment of youth, determined to avoid the (inevitable) pitfalls and soul-destroying events in store for her.

----- Completing the cast is the wordless role of The Boy, played by Jason Charters.

----- John Ferguson
's single-room set design emphasized the "tall" theme, with towering mirrors, bedposts, all black and gilt, creating a dramatic and symbolic effect. Ferguson, whose other works for The Grand include Great Expectations, has won two Dora Mavor Moore awards for outstanding design. Sholem Dolgoy designed the lighting.

----- Three Tall Women plays at The Grand Theatre at 471 Richmond Street in London until March 1. Call the Box Office at 1-800-265-1593 for tickets.

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