This smart social comedy by W. Somerset Maugham plays in repertory at the Royal George Theatre
in Niagara-on-the-Lake through October 27th. Expect a lot of talk. The play runs fully 2 hours and fifty minutes with its two intermissions.
THUMBNAIL SKETCH: The cravings and connivings of a group of mega-rich, expatriate Americans (in particular, a clutch of pretty, younger heiresses) in London society, early 1920’s.
THE ROLES, THE PLAYERS AND THE PRODUCTION: While there are nine major characters in OUR BETTERS, the focus is ultimately on Pearl (Lady Grayston), an American heiress who married an English lord (now generally absent), and who has cunningly set herself up as a major player in London society.
The ruthless Pearl manipulates both men and women like puppets; she’ll do whatever it takes to enhance her power and position. Claire Jullien nails this chilling portrait. Pearl’s friend, Minnie (Duchesse de Surennes), also an American expatriate, is a bored, catty creature, in serious danger of losing her boy toy, Tony Paxton. It is Pearl’s proclivity for poaching on Minnie’s men that precipitates the action (what there is of it). Laurie Paton’s Minnie is certainly sound, although her booming Act III tirades are awfully hard on the ears! Julia Course plays Pearl’s younger sister, Bessie, fresh off the boat and looking for her own (literal) Prince Charming. All bubbly energy and earnest innocence, she grows disaffected quite quickly with the jaded company that she keeps. A lovely turn by Ms. Course.
Also engaging our sympathies are Ben Sanders, as the plainspoken, smitten, chagrinned Lord Bleane, and Catherine McGregor as Flora (Princess della Cercola), a lonely American heiress and spurned divorcee, who now spends her time doing philanthropy and being a good friend to people who don’t deserve her. On the comedic side of things, both Neil Barclay, as a sort of born-in-Louisiana Oscar Wilde, and Lorne Kennedy, as Pearl’s doting, foolish sugar daddy (and yet another former Yank) score points. Also Anthony Bekenn, in the small role of Poole, the disdainful butler.
Maugham’s play takes its time, but is ultimately rewarding. There are some trenchant observations here on American-style vs European-style morality, and upon the Anglo-American and Euro-American alliances that were still a staple among the upper classes at the time the play was written. There is a pro-American bias in OUR BETTERS that I personally found quite refreshing. The production values are predictably first rate. The two elegant, well-appointed sister-sets are by Ken MacDonald. Charlotte Dean has provided fine period costumes, including several positively knockout evening gowns.
In sum, here’s an absorbing play by a major literary figure, well worth reviving, beautifully presented by the folks at the Shaw. And you have ’til nearly Halloween to catch it!
*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)
ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.
TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.
THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.
FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.
FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!