Shaw's Admirable Crichton, the perennial argument - nature vs. nurture
Once a month, aging Lord Loam (David Schurmann) invites his many servants to tea, treats them (temporarily) as equals and shares his utopian dream of a society without class distinctions. His perfect butler, Crichton (Steven Sutcliffe), must play along unwillingly, but ultimately, the aristocrat has his theories severely put to the test when he and his family take a yacht trip and are shipwrecked on a desert island. Of course, Crichton takes complete charge while the aristocrats shiver and flounder, and soon the role of servant and master are reversed. When a ship finally looms close to the island after two years of
life in which the upper class have strangely become animated, learning to live in the moment as opposed
to the routine boredom of their London locale, who will then be in charge?
Jackie Maxwell has made some fine choices for Shaw's 50th anniversary celebration, and here with J.M. Barrie, she is dead on. "After celebrated productions of Peter Pan and several lunchtime renditions of his enchanting one-act plays, it is a natural step for us to continue revisiting Mr. Barrie with this slyly subversive comic fantasy, The Admirable Crichton." Equally important is who Maxwell asks to direct. In this case, Morris Panych is allowed to unleash his fertile imagination with broadly great results.
For example, a superb group of marvellously costumed animals wear brilliant masks above their tailored clothes. The crane (Jonathan Tan), fox (Devon Tulluck), hedgehog (Katie Murphy), hare (Kiera Sangster) crow (Heather McGuigan) and wolf (Billy Lake) provide merry melodic 1920's song and dance numbers and are cleverly utilized to adjust sets and advance narrative. Whenever on stage, they dazzle, no mean feat given their visual restrictions. Imaginative sets by Ken MacDonald augment the themes and keep one's eye constantly on the move, noticing delicate details and care. Panych and Macdonald also use a clever screen upon which they record text and illustrations. At first, used to list the cast, I didn't think this would work, but it grows on one and ably abets the fantasy motif.
The issue with Barrie as with Shaw is British class structure, and here, given the fantasy, I thought Panych might gamble with an older lead such as in the 1993 movie The Remains of the Day staring Anthony Hopkins in which class structure is thoroughly examined in both servant and master classes. "There must always, my lady, be one to command and others to obey," concludes Sutcliffe who provides a workman-like rendition of Crichton, often using his hands in a grinding washing fashion to evoke submissiveness, a trait picked up by the aristocrats during role reversal on the island.
Schurmann performs a first-class job as the Earl of Loam as does his three daughters, Moya O'Connell, Cherissa Richards and Nicole Underhay, but as in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Underhay emerges clearly as a gifted actress, her transition from idle aristocrat to warrior huntress, a joy to behold.
Barrie, in his stage directions, says: "Crichton is the beau ideal of a butler in a correct establishment. There has never been quite such a perfect butler. He is also an excellent fellow who has achieved greatness in his calling because he thinks it is a truly noble one." On the island, Sutcliffe transforms Crichton into a natural group leader, capable of amazing inventions and survival techniques which soon have the others referring to him as "Guv." When he returns, he cannot be the same person he once was. This provides Panych with another fantasy opportunity to display a false ending which leads to a grandiose finale of song and dance that literally fills the stage with 27 merry characters. The audience loved it!
Marla McLean is excellent as the maid, Tweeny, also on the island where she must fend off Kyle Blair who excels as the despicable aristocrat, The Hon. Ernest Woolley. The cast is so loaded with talent that Cat leads Moya O'Connell and Gray Powell (Lord Brocklehurst) play minor roles.
The Admirable Crichton, The Other Island Adventure by J. M. Barrie plays from June 22 to October 29 at the Festival Theatre. Running time is approximately 2 hours and 20 minutes including one intermission.