Review: Confusion, doubt are part of finding identity in This London Life

This London Life
Grand Theatre, London, Ontario
Runs Oct. 15-Nov. 2, 2019
By Morris Panych
Directed by Morris Panych
Set and costume design by Ken MacDonald
Guest artists: Cynthia Jimenez-Hicks, Allister MacDonald, Rebecca Northan, Ryan Shaw, Braeden Soltys and Wendy Thatcher

Ken MacDonald’s set for This London Life features a two-storey home that employs a forced perspective. Photo by Morris Lamont

Soon after being named artistic director of the Grand Theatre in 2016, London native Dennis Garnhum hatched a plan to somehow feature his hometown — the city that gave him his artistic wings — on the theatre’s main stage.

To achieve that goal, Garnhum knew he’d have to sell executive director Deb Harvey on the concept, find additional financial resources and then seek out a reliable, well-known Canadian playwright to come up with something that would comedically explore the perennial confusion between the British metropolis and its Ontario namesake. Two years later, This London Life, by Morris Panych, is the happy result.

The story revolves around mistaken identity. Jimmy (Allister MacDonald), a low-level gang member who is trying to get back home to London, England, from Mexico via Calgary with a stash of cocaine, awakes from a deep, painkiller-induced stupor in London, Ont., thinking he is on the other side of the Atlantic. Confusion abounds, both for Jimmy, as well as for those who find themselves as hosts and new acquaintances of the dazed stranger with whom Nan (Wendy Thatcher) has returned from the baggage-claim area of the airport.

The bewilderment is exacerbated by common place names (Covent Garden Market, St. Paul’s Cathedral, Baker Street, Victoria Park, etc.) and the comedy includes one-liners that poke fun at local peculiarities. Western students, interminable delays at railway crossings, recycling trucks and London’s airport (“international in name only”) are among the dozens of local references sprinkled throughout the script with a levity and humour that leaves audience members nodding in knowing recognition.

And while Allister MacDonald, as Jimmy, plays a central role in the proceedings, it’s Lambton County Grade 7 student Ryan Shaw, as foster child Walter Winch, who steals the show — not only by dint of his dramatic workload, but by the precociousness of his character’s attitude and the speed of the young actor’s delivery. He could, in fact, afford to adjust his timing here and there to become a bit more deliberate, milking some of the lines Panych has given him. And Wendy Thatcher, the Shaw Festival veteran who plays the idiosyncratic Nan, is a joy to watch, especially in her more wistful moments.

Ryan Shaw, in his role as the irrepressible Walter Winch, examines an X-ray of the leg of Jimmy, played by Allister MacDonald. Both actors are making their debuts at the Grand in This London Life. Photo by Morris Lamont

By the end of the play, its characters (mostly) separate fact from fiction and Panych ties up the loose ends. But there’s a strong underlying current: that each of us is in search of identity and our place in the world. For Jimmy, the search is quite literal and desperate. Young Walter hopes for a future with more stability that the foster-child life that’s been his lot. Nan, a British ex-pat, is conflicted but generally happy with the sequence of events that have made Canada’s London her home. Rae-Ann, played by Cynthia Jimenez-Hicks, is a disaffected teenage busker for whom the road toward identity is only just beginning. Even cities, it turns out, go in search of identity when they live in the shadows of their namesakes.

For his part, Panych draws on a lifetime of achievement as a playwright and director, not only onstage but off it. He knows the characters he’s brought to life, of course, but here he also reveals a sharp awareness of his benefactor, his major sponsor and his audiences, and demonstrates his literary range. This is not the Morris Panych who teased out themes of loneliness and empathy in Earshot (2001); who explored social stratification and the meaning of work in The Dishwashers (2005); who forced audiences to confront fractured family dynamics and death in The Trespassers (2009); or who fingered truths about justice through comedy in The Shoplifters (2015). This London Life, by contrast, is more tailored-to-fit; more corporate. In bringing Panych’s formidable skill and reputation to bear on his London-versus-London concept, Garnhum ensured that the project would get done and, secondly, get done in a way that would be reliably timeless, not unlike the hiring of a well-known film director to produce a one-minute spot or a music video.

In all these ways, This London Life succeeds: Audiences in Ontario’s London get a chance to see and hear themselves on stage. Panych adds a show with a distinctly different kind of accent to his already impressive body of work. The Grand gets a world premiere and another notch on its play-development belt. Tourism London can consider sponsoring the show again — at another venue, with another cast — when events (think the Juno Awards or the World Figure Skating Championships) bring visitors from around the world to this “other” London. (In fact, Tourism London agreed to sponsor the development of three plays over a five-year period, through grants totalling $75,000, in addition to marketing support.)

And in the end, Garnhum gets precisely what he set out to achieve: An open love letter to a hometown, infused with wit, laughs and provincial charm.

Rebecca Northan, known to Grand Theatre audiences as the star of 2018’s Blind Date, returns as Mrs. Simpson, who has her suspicions about Jimmy, played by Allister MacDonald, in This London Life. Photo by Morris Lamont

For another review of This London Life, see London Free Press arts and entertainment reporter Joe Belanger’s review here.

CRA publishes details of London Arts Council’s year

Canada Revenue Agency this week published details of the 2018 charity information return filed by the London Arts Council.

Source: Canada Revenue Agency

The filing, for the period ending Dec. 31, 2018, shows total revenue for the year at $1.49 million, with total expenses at just over $1.48 million. Nearly 70 per cent of the council’s income came from governments, with $998,844 derived from the City of London and another $36,100 coming from the federal government. Other revenue, including funds from sources such as Ontario Trillium Foundation, London Community Foundation and sponsorships, came to $452,732. Receipted donations ($1,332) amounted to less than one tenth of one per cent of the agency’s income.

Source: Canada Revenue Agency

On the expenditure side, the arts council steered nearly $1.16 million to programming (a breakdown of 2018 grants in the largest of its programs, the Community Arts Investment Program, is available here). The council incurred expenses of $287,824 for seven staff salaries and had occupancy costs at its King Street location of $14,824. Another $12,612 was spent on professional and consulting fees. About $5,800 went to training for staff and volunteers, while $1,550 was spent on advertising.

The London Arts Council’s stated purpose is to work with “public, private and community partners to build and sustain Londoners’ awareness of, involvement in, and support for all artistic disciplines across the city.” Chief among its functions is the administration of the Community Arts Investment Program (CAIP), a funding program for local professional artists, artist collectives, and arts organizations that fosters artistic excellence. Additionally it offers assistance to artists, artist collectives and arts organizations with “professional development and training, networking and mentorship opportunities, and community connection and accessibility.” The council also advocates for public policies that support the arts.

A listing of recipients of the council’s CAIP grants for 2019 is available here. It shows the top recipients of funding in the current year as being Aeolian Hall Performing Arts Centre and Fringe London Theatre Festival ($55,000 each), followed by Palace Theatre ($50,000), Sunfest ($50,000), The ARTS Project ($50,000) and Home County Folk League ($40,000).

The London Arts Council is led by executive director Andrea Hibbert. Allison Price, director of programs and engagement at TechAlliance of Southwestern Ontario, is president of the five-member board of directors.

Grand prepares a comedy of errors with This London Life

Those of us who hail from southwestern Ontario know all too well the zeal (or was it a lack of imagination?) with which British pioneer settlers named their outposts, settlements and towns after places back home.

Windsor. Scotland. Dublin. Stratford. Exeter. Leamington. Southampton. Peterborough. The list is long. The same holds true for London, of course — and that’s the foundational premise behind This London Life, opening at the Grand Theatre this weekend.

Mrs. Simpson (Rebecca Northan) welcomes Jimmy (Allister MacDonald) to her home in the Grand Theatre’s world premiere production of This London Life. Photo by Morris Lamont

Jimmy, a Brit with a dubious past, breaks his leg abroad, loads up on painkillers, then attempts to fly home to London, England. Impaired by the drugs he’s ingested, Jimmy is unaware that he has been delivered to London, Ont., rather than his intended destination. Local references and identical place names — Covent Garden Market, St. Paul’s Cathedral, the Thames River, Exeter, etc. — only exacerbate the confusion. Hilarity promises to ensue.

Commissioned by Grand artistic director Dennis Garnhum through the theatre’s COMPASS New Play Development program, This London Life was written and directed by Morris Panych, with set and costume design by Ken MacDonald.

With a new play such as this — and given that its playwright/director will remain on site through this week — preview performances take on heightened importance, said Garnham at a media call yesterday.

“With most shows, you have a proven history,” Garnhum said, referring to scripts that are set in stone and staging that is presumptive and somewhat preordained. With the world premiere of a new play, he said, there is none of that.

“The rewriting will continue until opening night,” Garnhum said, adding that preview performances “were really built for new plays.” The writer studies the audiences just as carefully as they take notes on actors’ performances. To that end, the Grand held an invited reading in its rehearsal hall at the beginning of the production process, and offered a closed performance to theatre staff and ushers. Then previews began last night.

“We’re still rewriting; that’s what happens with a new show,” Garnhum said…. With Morris Panych, you kind of stack the deck…. Morris can figure it out.”

This London Life opens at the Grand Theatre on Oct. 18 and runs through Nov. 2. It stars Cynthia Jimenez-Hicks as Rae-Ann, Allister MacDonald as Jimmy, Rebecca Northan as Mrs. Simpson, Ryan Shaw as Walter Winch, Braeden Soltys as Emery and Wendy Thatcher as Nan. Check this site on the weekend for a review.

An advance story by arts reporter Joe Belanger of The London Free Press is here.

Review: The vicarious pleasure of Emma Donoghue’s Akin

In the seventh chapter of her latest novel, Akin, celebrated author Emma Donoghue inserts a short scene in which 79-year-old Noah and his 11-year-old great-nephew, Michael, stroll through a flea market in Nice, France. On the shelf of one of the small shops, Noah shows Michael a mug embossed with an image of Hergé’s famous character, Tintin, and his terrier Milou (Snowy, in the English translations).

It is a momentary diversion; Noah and Michael quickly pass the mug and move on to some vintage technologies, such as an old rotary phone and earpiece, a bellows camera and a collection of knives. (The camera is the important item. Cameras, the images they produce and the power of those images to reveal, obscure and connect are central motifs in the book.) There are no additional references to Tintin.

Remarkable to me, however, was the fact that the passing mention arrived on the novel’s pages shortly after I had begun to marvel at how much Donoghue’s story reminded me of Hergé’s graphic novels. I was about 11 years old, I realized — the same age as Michael — when bedtime reading often included one of Tintin’s adventures, borrowed from the Leamington (Ont.) Public Library. The story structure of those books was familiar: some odd event or circumstance would proper Tintin, a cub reporter at a newspaper, along with his dog, Snowy, toward some exotic adventure in a foreign land meticulously rendered by Hergé’s hand. As a pre-teen, I revelled in the author’s lush illustrations and visited, vicariously, the locations to which Tintin’s unsolved mysteries drew him: European kingdoms and principalities, the high seas, Mayan civilizations, the Himalayas, rugged islands off Scotland — even the moon.

Akin propels the reader along a plotline in an exotic locale in similar fashion. A retired New York professor’s pre-planned vacation is upended when he reluctantly agrees to take his great-nephew to Nice, on the French Riviera. Noah, the professor, had hoped the trip might help him solve a series of riddles posed by a small collection of Second World War-era photographs that hint at some connection between Noah’s mother, Margot, and the Nazi occupation of France. The great-nephew, Michael, is thrust into Noah’s custody because Michael’s mother, Amber, is in prison and Noah is the only living relative to which Children’s Services can turn for help.

So the stage is set: This odd couple — a creaky professor emeritus from a New York university and his recalcitrant and ill-mannered but tech-savvy relative — head to the French Riviera to solve personal mysteries. All the while, Noah engages in a kind of internal dialogue with his deceased wife, Joan, as he attempts to rein in Michael’s rambunctious spirit. The story reaches a satisfying conclusion, revealing two types of heroism and the sinewy fibres that invisibly bind family members across generations, making their members akin to one another in more ways than they realize.

Just as pleasing as the story, however, is Donoghue’s descriptions of the locale. In a personal note about the book, the author writes, “Akin is my only book to grow out of a particular place: it’s inspired by the two years (2011-12 and 2015-16) I spent with my French partner and our children in Nice. Despite having a degree in French and English, over the decades I’ve consistently failed to become fluent in French, so this novel is a sort of apologetic love-letter to the country that intrigues me so deeply, where I will always be a stranger.” Donoghue’s immersion in the city’s past and present over those two years is immensely important to the book. The reader luxuriates in her descriptions of the geography, customs, celebrations, cuisine and attitudes of Nice, which are wonderfully intertwined with the quest for answers to the riddles that haunt Noah. Nice, and the French Riviera, become important characters in the story.

Emma Donoghue

Best known for her 2010 bestseller Room (her adapted screenplay was nominated for an Academy Award, a Golden Globe (Drama Screenplay) and a BAFTA film award), Donoghue lives in London, Ont., with her partner Chris Roulston, their son Finn (15) and daughter Una (11).

A conversation between Donoghue and CBC Radio host Tom Power was broadcast shortly before Akin was published on Sept. 3. That interview, from the program q, is available here. The New York Times review of Akin can be found here.

Urban Design Awards opens People’s Choice category

The Urban Design Awards aren’t new to London, Ont., but the People’s Choice category is.

Between now and Oct. 30 at 4:30 p.m., Londoners (and others) have the chance to help choose the winner of the new grouping, which consists of entries from across all other categories: buildings, buildings (small scale residential), public realm enhancements, public spaces and landscapes, large places and neighbourhoods, and adaptive use or rehabilitation. There are 24 entries in total. Abstracts on the full slate of entries are here.

Awards logo

Interested in having your say? Go to this page to vote.

The biennial awards ceremony is the City of London’s effort “to recognize and celebrate original design, innovative concepts and visionary thinking in the field of urban planning,” said a city news release. “The Urban Design Awards are also intended to inspire developers, architects, landscape architects, planners and designers to advance excellence in their own projects in pursuit of community recognition and appreciation.”

The 2019 Urban Design Awards will be handed out on Nov. 7 at Museum London. Tickets at $20 each ($10 for students) are available at Eventbrite.

The city is also planning a City Building Week for Nov. 4–9 to raise awareness of the importance of city planning in the community.

Review: London Symphonia renders a smouldering 19th-century love story

If the word “love” denotes deep affection, yearning and commitment, and if the word “story” means a series of events connected to a each other over a period of time, then the relationship between pianist Clara Schumann and composer Johannes Brahms was a love story indeed — one which may or may not have been consummated.

That was the mystery teased out by London Symphonia and its guest performers last night at Metropolitan United Church, under the baton of Saskatoon-based conductor Eric Paetkau.

Marion Adler
Marion Adler

The program, conceived by actor and singer Marion Adler (currently playing Grandma Elliot in the Stratford Festival’s extended run of Billy Elliot The Musical), stitches together the music of Schumann, her husband Robert Schumann, and Brahms in a way that tells a story of deep friendship, longing and undying commitment. Adler played the part of Clara Schumann; her husband, Stratford-based actor and director Scott Wentworth, read the lines penned by Brahms.

Only a handful of the dozens of letters exchanged between Schumann and Brahms survive. But the careful interspersing of text and music is an inspired way of relaying, to today’s audiences, a complex relationship more than century in the past. The extracts harken back to a time when desire, yearning and longing were essential elements of love and being in love; when instant gratification was uncouth and digital connectedness unimaginable.

Among the excerpts from Schumann were hints of satisfaction over the applause that greeted and stirred her in Vienna, but also the tedium that awaited her among the musically unwashed masses of Belgium. There were flashes of jealousy over “your new lady pupils.” She wrote of her deep appreciation for the music of her husband, Robert, and the depths of her sadness over his death, especially when “they bore him away.” She repeatedly yearned to see Brahms again, expressing ecstasy over his most recent compositions and, more practically, hoping that each of her seven children would, by the time they are 20, be able to earn their own livings.

From the pen of Brahms flowed frustration over his vocation (“It is really no fun to teach children”), the distance between himself and Clara (“Your portrait is looking kindly down upon me . . . I am thinking too much of you”) and the “kisses too intangible” between them. And as the concert drew to a close, Brahms’ declarations became ever more plain and direct: “I love you more than myself, more than anyone else.”

Orchestra and piano tied the letters together. London Symphonia played beautifully through all four movements of Brahms’ Symphony No. 3 in F Major, Op. 90(though they were separated by the actors’ recitations), Variation I and Variation IV from Brahms’ Variations on a Theme by R. Schumann, Op. 9, and four sections from Brahms’ Variations on a Theme by Joseph Haydn, Op. 56a.

Augmenting those performances was the brilliance of pianist Stéphan Sylvestre, an associate professor in the Don Wright Faculty of Music at Western University, who punctuated the Schumann-Brahms story with four of Robert Schumann’s Bunte Blätter, Op. 99, as well as four selections from Clara Schumann’s Variations on a Theme by R. Schumann, Op. 20. Sylvestre’s performance of Variation V was a statement in itself about his virtuosity — absolutely thrilling.

The concert demonstrated — and validated — what London Symphonia sees as an important goal this season: the use of music, drama and spoken word to tell stories and explore contemporary themes, not in a didactic way, but through a playfulness and accomplished musicianship that stirs listeners’ spirits, engages their minds and prods their imaginations.

The evening’s printed program also included a prominent tribute to London Symphonia’s founding board chair, Paul Weaver, who passed away in May. Members of his family were in attendance. An online obituary is here.

London Symphonia’s next concert, Take Me to the Cabaret, is scheduled for Oct. 29 at Talbot Street Church.

The High School Project: postscript

As the Grand Theatre‘s 2019 High School Project comes to a close, the following are a few additional thoughts on the annual endeavour and its impact on London-area students.

As noted earlier, Titanic The Musical was the Grand’s 34th HSP over the past 21 years. To celebrate the tradition, the theatre sent email invitations to more than 800 HSP alumni to a special performance on Saturday, Sept. 21. Thirty-five attended.

Grand Theatre program
The program from this year’s production

That “may not seem like a lot, but so many alumni are away at school, or have moved on from London. We had a display of memorabilia, and offered them a drink ticket for the post-show reception, which included pizza,” wrote Jennifer Matthews, the Grand’s communications manager, in an email. The theatre is also aware it has an incomplete list of HSP alumni email addresses, and is always looking to bolster it.

And what about the impact on the students who participate?

In the short term, it’s a ton of hard work. Rehearsals begin in August, but stretch into the new school year, as students are busily getting adjusted to new courses, new teachers and compressed personal schedules. They need the support of their teachers and fellow students to keep up with the classes they must occasionally miss.

According to H.B. Beal Secondary School teachers Jessica Dawson and Tracey Iddison-Gubbels — both teach dance and drama — there is enormous value in the “journey.” The audition process itself is valuable, they say, regardless of the outcome. It teaches resiliency and reveals students’ strengths and weaknesses in ways few other experiences can.

Michelle Rees, the arts learning coordinator with the Thames Valley District School Board, takes an even broader view. Besides adjacent skills in the business of theatre, lighting, sound, costuming, sets and promotion, students who become part of the annual HSP build their “global competencies” for career success, especially in “soft skills,” no matter the vocations and professions they eventually choose. These include critical thinking and problem solving, innovation, creativity, entrepreneurship, collaboration, communication and global citizenship, Rees says.

A number of HSP alumni have gone on to various careers in the arts. They include actor Trevor Patt, music director and composer Doug Price, actor Jonathan Gysbers, director Andrew Tribe, actor Callandra Dendias and actor Mark Uhre.