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.