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.

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: Titanic The Musical, the 2019 High School Project

Titanic The Musical
The 2019 High School Project
The Grand Theatre, London, Ontario
Runs Sept. 17-Sept. 28, 2019
Story and book by Peter Stone
Music and lyrics by Maury Yeston
Directed by Andrew Tribe
Musical director Andrew Petrasiunas

Cast shot at media call on Sept. 17, 2019
The cast of Titanic The Musical in the Grand Theatre’s 2019 High School Project. Photo by Whitney South

In a 1998 interview with Contemporary Musicians writer Mary Kalfatovic, composer Maury Yeston explained that it was the positive aspects of what the Titanic represented that moved him to embark on writing the musical about the fated ship. Among those were: “1) humankind’s striving after great artistic works and similar technological feats, despite the possibility of tragic failure, and 2) the dreams of the passengers on board: 3rd Class, to immigrate to America for a better life; 2nd Class, to live a leisured lifestyle in imitation of the upper classes; 1st Class, to maintain their privileged positions forever.

“The collision with the iceberg dashed all of these dreams simultaneously, and the subsequent transformation of character of the passengers and crew had, it seemed to me, the potential for great emotional and musical expression onstage.”

To successfully portray such poignancy and tragedy would be a challenge for the most skilled stage actors, let alone high school students with limited lived experience: By the show’s intermission, the Titanic’s hull has already been breached. Act 2 is the extended process by which the ship’s captain, crew and passengers face their unsinkable ship’s demise and reckon with their imminent fates.

The London-area teens who bring this production to life are at their best when they’re imagining, dreaming, yearning, wishing — emotions with which they are well acquainted. The more subtle and complex demands of Act 2 — hubris, separation, regret, unfulfilled lives and the prospect of a death so near its saltiness can already be tasted — are less familiar to them and, consequently, less convincing.

There are occasional missed notes and dropped lines. But there are also standout performances and flashes of promise. Among them: Mikéla Marcellin as second-class passenger Caroline Neville, Max Webb Comor as first officer William Murdoch, Sarah Dennison as Titanic designer Thomas Andrews, Leyla Boyacigil as White Star Line chairperson J. Bruce Ismay, Clare Scanlon as first-class passenger Ida Straus, Carter Keane as first-class steward Henry Etches, Matthew deKort as stoker Frederick Barrett and Lauren Gillis as second-class passenger Alice Beane.

Bradley Amesse is sturdily measured and authoritative in his role as Titanic Capt. E.J. Smith, while Tanner Hamlin puts every ounce of energy he possesses into his role as bandmaster Wallace Hartley. And Daniel McKinnon, consigned to the more minor role of Harold Bride, the ship’s radio operator, telegraphs a firm command of his talents.

From media call on Sept. 17
Jack Crim and Lauren Gillis, both Grade 12 students at H.B. Beal Secondary School, portray second-class passengers Edgar and Alice Beane. Photo by Whitney South

This High School Project is ambitious and daring. It was a bold choice. Unlike many previous HSPs, this one has no signature tune, no song that patrons will walk out humming, and no ending that satisfyingly resolves any of the sub-plots within. The iceberg ends all. But this cast and crew meet those challenges without blinking. These students are ambitious, zealous and in firm possession of a story that is both inspiring and tragic — a success for director Andrew Tribe.

There is another layer to this production too. With the show’s run coinciding (inadvertently) with the global climate strike, the comparisons between the Titanic and the fate of Planet Earth are easily apparent. The students on stage will be forced to live through whatever climate legacy the rest of us leave them. Questions about the course we’ve set for the planet; the impacts of our carelessness, negligence and even recklessness; the impending collisions between our dreams and natural science; and whether there’s still time to change course, avoiding a cataclysm ahead — all of these come into focus. They are questions begging for answers, raised by a hard-working cast for whom some future consequence is already inescapable.

For another take on this show, see London Free Press journalist Dan Brown’s review here.

Titanic The Musical prepares to set sail

In the spring of 2016, as Grand Theatre artistic director Susan Ferley was concluding her tenure, I asked Ottawa-based theatre writer Patrick Langston about the yardsticks by which ADs should be measured. What makes theatre ADs successful and how should we evaluate their contributions to their theatres and communities?

The resulting column listed a number of Langston’s criteria; among them, whether the AD had managed to develop “local theatre makers” (actors, designers, technicians, playwrights), especially young people, who could reinvigorate the local theatre community.

Over the course of 34 productions spanning 21 years, the Grand Theatre’s primary tool for achieving that goal has been the High School Project. Launched by Michael Shamata and nurtured by successive ADs Kelly Handarek, Ferley and Dennis Garnhum, the HSP has grown steadily in popularity and reach.

Like many previous productions, this year’s HSP is a formidable challenge. Titanic: The Musical premiered on Broadway in 1997, winning all five Tony Awards for which it was nominated, and has since toured worldwide. Like its namesake, it is a monumental piece of work that will pose a significant challenge to the 50 students in the cast, supported by another 20 students in production positions. The students come from 12 different schools within the Thames Valley District School Board and the London District Catholic School Board. One student is home-schooled. By far the largest plurality of students (30!) hails from H.B. Beal Secondary School.

Illustrates blog post
Cast members of the 2019 High School Project appear at a media call for Titanic The Musical, on Sept. 17, 2019. Photo by Whitney South

Titanic: The Musical officially opens at the Grand Theatre on Sept. 20 and runs through Sept. 28. It’s directed by Londoner Andrew Tribe, best known for his work as artistic director at Original Kids Theatre. Check back later for a brief review. A link to The London Free Press’s advancer on the show is here.

Previous HSP productions:
1998: West Side Story (May 7-16; Michael Shamata, director)
1999: A Midsummer Night’s Dream (May 14-22; Michael Shamata, director)
2000: Guys and Dolls (April 28-May 6; Kelly Handarek, director)
2001: Hello, Dolly! (April 10-22; Kelly Handarek, director)
2002: Oliver! (April 3-14; Susan Ferley, director)
2003: The Music Man (April 8-20; Susan Ferley, director)
2004: Fiddler on the Roof (April 14-25; Susan Ferley, director)
2005: Oklahoma! (April 5-17; Campbell Smith, director); The Sound of Music (Sept. 27-Oct. 9; Susan Ferley, director)
2006: Twelfth Night (April 4-8; Susan Ferley, director); West Side Story (Sept. 13-30; Susan Ferley, director)
2007: Romeo and Juliet (April 17-21; Susan Ferley, director); Les Misérables, School Edition (Sept. 25-Oct. 6; Susan Ferley, director)
2008: Listen to the Wind (April 15-19; Andrea Boys, director); The Pirates of Penzance (Sept. 23-Oct. 4; Susan Ferley, director)
2009: As You Like It (May 5-9; Lee Wilson, director); Grease (Sept. 22-Oct. 3; Susan Ferley, director)
2010: Macbeth (April 6-10; Heather Davies, director); Anything Goes (Sept. 21-Oct. 2; Heather Davies, director)
2011: The Odyssey (April 5-9; Jeremy Smith, director); Footloose (Sept. 20-Oct. 1; Heather Davies, director)
2012: A Midsummer Night’s Dream (April 24-28; Jeremy Smith, director); My Fair Lady (Sept. 17-28; Susan Ferley, director)
2013: The Taming of the Shrew (April 23-27; Jack Grinhaus, director); Legally Blonde (Sept. 17-28; Susan Ferley, director)
2014: The Importance of Being Earnest (April 22-26; Jamie Dunsdon, director); The Addams Family: A New Musical (Sept. 16-27; Susan Ferley, director)
2015: Much Ado About Nothing (April 21-25; Krista Jackson, director); Hello, Dolly! (Sept. 22-Oct. 3; Susan Ferley, director)
2016: Julius Caesar (April 12-16; Megan Watson, director); Les Misérables, School Edition (Sept. 20-Oct. 1; Susan Ferley, director)
2017: Shakespeare: The Mixtape (April 6-8; Megan Watson, director); Evita (Sept. 19-30; Jan Alexandra Smith, director)
2018: Prom Queen: The Musical (Sept. 18-29; Dennis Garnhum, director)