Saturday, 21 March 2015

WGT's Laburnum Grove reading is cheery stuff

Twice a year Western Gold Theatre mounts what they call "studio productions" at the Performing Arts Lodge (PAL) 8th floor studio theatre. They are elaborate readings -- the players all hold scripts in-hand -- but replete with period costumes, sets and full-out blocking of stage movement. Their current two-hour production that opened Friday and closes Sunday is of the J.B. Priestly (a.k.a. Priestley) 1933 script Laburnum Grove set in Depression-weary North London.

Background notes on the playwright : J. B. Priestly died at age 89 in the very year his contemporary George Orwell set as the stage for his masterpiece Big Brother novel 1984. Orwell's book of rampant privacy invasion and liberty suppression by Government spawned the eponymous adjective "orwellian" that many apply to the Harper government anti-terrorism Bill C-51. But I digress. There is, meanwhile, no parallel adjective "priestlyian". This despite the fact the man was a giant of letters in his time. Some have called him "the last sage of English literature". 

Priestly's tally included some 120 books and 50 play scripts. Wiki tells us that between ages 70-84 he published no fewer than 21 (!books, including histories, critical essays and novels. But he wasn't just an ink-stained-wretch wedded to his black steel Underwood : during World War II he was also known as the voice of the people for BBC radio. He made chipper and cheering weekly patriotic broadcasts for them throughout the war. Comforting words spewed forth once the smoke from his omnipresent tobacco pipe had cleared.

No, there is no adjective "priestlyian" probably because the man was generally upbeat : clearly he drank from a glass perpetually half-full. His belief was that a writer should maintain an "ironic detachment" from the goings-on all 'round. Priestly aimed his works -- like his American counterpart composer Aaron Copland -- at the common man.  Neither the snoots and snots and puffed-up tots of polite society nor those bolshies from academe who brag they are society's intelligentsia were his target audience. Just plain Jack and Jill Bloke were his people. In that context it is interesting to note he was an avid supporter of CND -- the Committee for Nuclear Disarmament -- whose peace symbol 75 years later is still the ubiquitous badge sported by teens and college kids.

Why a renaissance of Priestly ? : In a world of terror politics that are our daily fare, the middle-brow well-made-play has an attraction for folks wanting divertissement without significant cranial gymnastics. Amusement that is catchy but not goading or heavy-handed. A comedy of manners with a whiff of social commentary attached just to niggle and tweak.

Laburnum Grove was published the year Adolf Hitler rose to power in tumultuous Europe. Across the saltchuck in Blighty, by comparison, life was still in mid-Depression struggles though starting to show signs of recovery, as the saying has it, in stits-&-farts.

Enter George Redfern of the shady, ambient North London comfort zone in Shooter's Green, Ferndale and its lazy, cozy sidestreet village of Laburnum Grove. Genial George, a successful wholesale paper supplier, seems to have but one worry : whether his tomato crop will prosper in London's notorious rainy-damp climate.

But George has company at home. In-laws and wannabes and would-be hand-out seekers who have outstayed their welcome by days or weeks, not just hours. Daughter Elsie's fiance Harold wants set-up money to drive a used car lot. Brother-in-law Bernie Baxley wants to jumpstart a business supply agency : a mere 450 quid would do the trick right smartly, he pleads. 

Over dinner George hucks a rotten tomato at them : I've given up the boring paper supply business in favour of producing high-quality counterfeit bonds and notes with a criminal gang, he tells them. A kind of 1930's "quantitative easing" by pumping more currency into circulation. And from there the shenanigans and hijinx proceed. 

Harold, seemingly aghast at the prospect of marrying into "dirty money", cancels his engagement to Elsie. George asks Baxley and wife Lucy to take the heartbroken Elsie off to see a West End gangster flick, gives them a couple of (counterfeit?!) notes to fund their fun night out.

When George's wife Dorothy arrives back home and hears the story, she convinces all that George was just funnin' with them to get their goat and send them scurrying for cover so as not to be "accessories". Convinced now they were duped by George, Harold renews his marriage plea to Elsie. Bernie and Lucy revive their business start-up beg. Forsaking George was easy and convenient when his wealth was thought tainted. Accepting and loving George is easy and convenient, once again, when his wealth was laundered anew. For the moment at least.

Message sent over the wireless :  Albeit written two decades before my own suburban youth on this continent, Laburnum Grove speaks to the same hypocrisies and grievances we lobbed at our parents' generation once we became know-it-all collegians in the 60's. How beneath the veneer of respectability and self-righteous good works lurked deceits and grifter schemes and social infidelities galore, despite everyone's straight-&-narrow facade of conformity and pious Sundays.

Priestly mines these themes for all they're worth but does so with only slightly more irony than one would find in a typical "Father Knows Best" t.v. episode. Indeed his writing instantly brings to mind the famous Horace Walpole quote from half-a-century earlier : "The world is comic to those who think / And tragic to those who feel." Priestly was mostly a thinking man, no question.

Production values : The nine actors in Laburnum Grove only joined forces for the first time on the PAL stage on Tuesday, three days back, to put this show together. A cast member admitted they were still blocking bits of the action as late as this afternoon. So the fact they could pull off an engaging and commendable performance -- and give Priestly his due in such a compressed time-frame -- is a remarkable feat for each one of them, surely. But impossible without the steady focus'd hand and eye of director Anna Hagan to guide them each step of the way.  

Notable character nuances were provided most obviously by Pippa Johnstone as the ingenue daughter Elsie, while her mother Dorothy by Susan Hogan gave viewers a warming Judy Dench-like turn. Brendan McClarty as the boffo "man from Singapore" Bernard was a spot-on lazy lout. Dad George played by Keith Martin Gordey kept the crowd guessing throughout, engagingly, what was truthiness -vs- what was factoid about the source of his value(s). 

Thanks to the generous assistance of properties master Michael Gall of the Arts Club Theatre and others, the theatre-in-the-round set was a convincing sitting / dining room approximation of the times. Costumes were great Sally Ann vintage, each one, the hint of mothballs ever near the pastiche of pleats & ruffles & tweeds and their attendant mix of stripes, plaids and prints. 

Who gonna like : Small theatre fans will enjoy to see how nine actors in a 20 X 30 foot space can entertain so effectively. Folks eager to escape t.v.'s nightly newsreel horrors will appreciate J. B. Priestly's ironic flip 80 years on. Students of stage art (of any age) who want to appreciate and grin broadly as they enjoy what focus and energy and enthusiasm can achieve in the right hands with the right script in just 72 hours time will learn much from this fun piece of business.

Particulars : Produced and presented by Western Gold Theatre. At the PAL Studio Theatre through Sunday. 581 Cordero Street. Phone 604.255.4313 for schedules and tickets. Or patch into the site for more info.

Production crew :  Director Anna Hagan.  Set Designers Glenn MacDonald & R. Todd Parker.  Lighting Designer Terence Kelly.  Sound Designer & Stage Manager Chris Allan.  Assistant Stage Manager R. Todd Parker.  Box Office Jane Clayton.  Graphics/Web/Print Joseph Emms.  Photographer Jason Kanyo.  PAL Theatre Manager Astrid Sars.  PAL Technical Director Nathan Hoffman.

Performers :  Tanja Dixon-Warren.  Keith Martin Gordey.  Ron Halder.  Brett Harris.  Susan Hogan.  Pippa Johnstone.  Victor Mariano.  Brendan McClarty.  John Prowse. 


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