Saturday 5 March 2016

WGT's Kettle & Moon riffs starchy British airs

From the footlights : Western Gold Theatre's script-in-hand studio productions -- rehearsed by the cast but 3 1/2 days -- are like radio plays. Except viewers not only hear the script come alive but watch a fully blocked performance avec sets and costumes. A year back WGT put on J. B. Priestly's 1933 Laburnum Grove. This year's communion with Priestly is his seldom performed 1955 script The Scandalous Affair of Mr. Kettle and Mrs. Moon. The piece is obscure enough it doesn't even make Wikipedia's list of 14 selected Priestly plays. And finding a review of it is a search engine that couldn't. Funny, that, because line-for-line Kettle & Moon is double the script that LG is i.m.o. And WGT's turnout is sharp, roguish and quick, utterly fun. 

What the show brings to the stage : Starchy pip-pip! British men all caught up in their self-importance has been the stuff of parody for years. Mary Poppins is a fine example of the genre. But K&M preceded that show by a decade. Priestly even beat two rising playwrights to the punch, Edward Albee and Harold Pinter, with his well-made comedy exploring a man's mid-life crisis and existential moment-of-truth.

This is 1955. The epoch of I Love Lucy. The Honeymooners. My Little Margie. But across the pond Priestly scripts a story of a bachelor bank manager who flips out one rainy November Monday morning, plays hookey from work and promptly tells his maid "I haven't stopped exploring myself!" and "I'm only about an hour old." He swats the status quo right on its beezer : "Who's happy about anything, who's enjoying it all? Everyone's half-daft with fuss, worry and vexation. I heard a voice, it said 'Why, George?' The voice said 'What's is all for...?'"

WGT Artistic Director Anna Hagan directed the Priestly piece, as she did last year, and excelled in her choices of actors to tell this by-now-familiar tale, some 60 years along, of angst and alienation and risking it all for George to find out for himself who the real "me" in "me" might be.

Production values : the actors are 'it' : From Moment 1 as Kettle, Tom McBeath acts out his surname joyously as he flips over a coal scuttle and starts banging on it and a pair of cymbals with a drum stick in time with the Polovtsian dances from Alexander Borodin's opera Prince Igor. Ostensibly stopping by to check in with him on a hospital charity they both support, Mrs. Delia Moon (Bronwen Smith) gets instantly caught up in the manic Igor banging and crashing. Kettle sends the "cold and severe" Mrs. Moon over that other moon instantly as he reveals : "All those meetings we sat through, half-dead or asleep though I was, all I could think of was to put you into frills and nonsense and make love to you."

The love chase, clearly, is on. And soon the banging and crashing are off-stage and imagined. A host of stuffies try to intervene, thinking Kettle "queer" [meaning "ill" in the day's vernacular], dotty or drunk. A local alderman. The chief of police. Delia's husband. George's boss. A doctor. All except his housekeeper's daughter Monica (Emmelia Gordon) who's caught up in serial sexual phantasies and finds this Crazy George quite to her liking.

Hagan's staging / blocking of the cast made full use of the horseshoe seating. The actors were in 100% kinesis-mode NSEW around the four corners of the set throughout the night, not a moment's stall. A treat to be so engaged in this room.

Acting pin-spots : As noted above, Hagan nails her characters for their acting chops. Top honours to McBeath who is at the same time outrageous and nuanced as George Kettle. Her costume direction from him in 3-piecer to barefoot early hippy with red-frame specs was sheer joissance. As Monica, Emmelia Gordon charmed completely as the naive ingenue wannabe glamourpuss. Couldn't be more contrast than between the umbrella-tapping real estate slogger husband Henry (William B. Davis) and wife Delia. Davis was sheer stiff-upper-lip charm, while Ms. Smith had just the right emotional crescendo moments throughout. Keith Martin Gordey as Alderman Hardacres was perfect in irrepressible cockalorum and rant. 

Who gonna like : The 130 folks in last night's sold-out house at the Performing Arts Lodge on Cardero were eager and boisterous and fully engaged in Priestly's clever dialogue. For a taste of early British push-back at 20th century cultural straightjackets, this is a truly fun way to sample that menu. 

Particulars :  Presented by Western Gold Theatre. At the PAL Studio Theatre, 581 Cardero Street. Shows March 5-6th, 2:00 matinees, 7:30 evenings.  Company info @ Tickets available through

Production team : Director Anna Hagan.  Set Designer Glenn MacDonald. Costume Designers The Cast.  Lighting Designer Terence Kelly.  Sound Chris Allen.  Stage Manager Jethelo Cabinet.  Props Co-ordinator Andy Sandberg. 

Performers : Stephen Aberle (Mr. Clinton).  William B. Davis (Henry Moon).  Tanja Dixon-Warren (Mrs. Twigg).  Keith Martin Gordey (Alderman Hardacres).  Emmelia Gordon (Monica Twigg).  Brett Harris (Dr. Grenock).  Hrothgar Mathews (Superintendent Street).  Tom McBeath (Gordon Kettle).  Bronwen Smith (Delia Moon).  

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". 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 for a time as the voice of the people for BBC radio. He made chipper and cheering weekly patriotic broadcasts for them 1940-1941. Comforting words spewed forth once the smoke from his omnipresent tobacco pipe had cleared. Then Churchill's Conservative caucus rousted him : too chummy with "just plain folks" for their liking.

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.


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