Through October 29
THE ADMIRABLE CHRICHTON Shaw Festival/ Festival Theatre
By Augustine Warner
Most theatergoers may not recognize the name J.M. Barrie.
Some will if they put the name together with “Peter Pan,” his most popular play.
A century later, the social class distinctions at the core of “Peter Pan” and at the heart of “The Admirable Chrichton” are not clear to us.
Both plays and Barrie's other writings appeared in those dying days of Victoria's reign, at the peak of the British Empire and at the end of a century with astonishing changes in the semi-rigid class system, eroded by the political changes of the Reform Movement and the rise of middle class wealth in the Industrial Revolution.
The Earl of Loam (David Schurmann) believes he's in tune with the times when once a month he brings the below stairs staff to the drawing room of his London mansion in Mayfair to serve them as they usually serve the family.
Butler Chrichton (Steven Sutcliffe) is appalled.
He's the butler and the man who actually runs the house, smoothly serving the family and governing the staff in the servant's hall below stairs.
That's not easy because the servants support the class system; because they are conditioned to be “in service” which carries a salary, food and clothing.
The family supports the system because members benefit from it, especially the sisters, Lady Mary (Nicole Underhay), Lady Agatha (Cherissa Richards) and Lady Catherine (Moya O'Connell).
The family has the hangers-on like Reverend John Treherne (Martin Happer) and Lord Brocklehurst (Gray Powell) who wants to marry Lady Mary.
What happens next is familiar to us today, with shows like “Gilligan's Island” and “Lost,” a shipwreck:
Lord Loam's vast yacht runs aground on a lost island and the passengers settle in for years in exile, with no skills.
Chrichton takes over, eventually becoming ruler of the island and planning to marry Lady Mary, in the community whose class structure has flipped upside down.
Then, a rescue boat arrives and the structure turns right side up, back in Mayfair and Chrichton and Lady Mary must return to their proper places in society.
The ending is clearly too depressing for director Morris Panych, who turns the play into a semi-musical, using an array of music.
Moving the play to the Twenties allows the key song to be Irving Berlin's “Shakin' the Blues Away,” with a wonderful closing production number from the cast, along with others like “Someday Soon” and “If You Hadn't Gone Away.”
Panych also took Barrie's stage directions and turns them into a set of dancing animals commenting on the events or the play using the stage directions and singing the songs, some really wonderful singing and dancing.
It's hard for us to believe the social stratification of the day when Barrie wrote “The Admirable Chrichton,” an era ended when the male service staff marched off to World War I and the women walked off to defense plant jobs, with taxes, war casualties and time meaning things could never be the same again.
The Loam mansion probably shifted to apartments or offices or a hole in the ground for high-rise apartments or an office building.
Lady Mary marries Bocklehurst and Chrichton remains a wonderful butler.
“The Admirable Chrichton” is a wonderful show, well worth seeing.
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