THEATRE REVIEW: OUR BETTERS
Pictured: Claire Jullien, Charlie Gallant
JOHN COULBOURN, Special to TorSun
13 MAY 2013
What we have here is a failure to communicate. While it seems that in programming and then staging W. Somerset Maugham's OUR BETTERS for the Shaw Festival, both artistic director Jackie Maxwell and director Morris Panych hoped to capitalize on the popularity of current TV trends to attract an audience.
But while Maxwell was hoping the success of Downton Abbey would set fire to the box-office for the show that opened Saturday in the Royal George, Panych was looking to the The Real Housewives of Orange County (with just a touch of Jersey Shore thrown in) for his inspiration. Not surprisingly, the final product doesn't really do justice to either vision, although in fairness, Panych's tawdry take on things carries the day in what can only be described as a pyrrhic victory.
In terms of Downton Abbey, it shares an era with OUR BETTERS, although Panych and designers Ken MacDonald (creator of the over-embroidered sets) and Charlotte Dean (creator of its memorable costuming confections) have moved the action from the pre-World War I where Maugham originally set it to the post-war era instead.
And like Downton Abbey, it's all a bit of a soap opera, concerned with the goings-on amongst a group of young women who have forsaken life in America in favour of a safari to deepest darkest London, determined to bag a titled husband, armed only with youthful good looks and their fathers' fortunes. They are led by the Lady Pearl Grayson (Claire Jullien, playing a tune that is all brass with no strings), who has parlayed her father's money and her husband's title into a leading role in London society — with a little help from her friends.
That accomplished, she's now concentrating her considerable energy on landing a similar aristocratic husband for her younger sister Bessie (a sweet Julia Course), who has already thrown over her still-loving American fiancé (an otherwise acceptable Wade Bogert-O'Brien, still incapable if concealing the off/on switch on his acting instrument) in preparation.
But though Bessie has been seduced by the elegance of London society and is well on her way to her matrimonial goal, cracks begin to appear in the world that enchants her — or at least they should. But they are already obvious in Pearl's coterie of American ex-pats, comprised of Neil Barclay, Laurie Paton, a touching Catherine McGregor and an utterly miscast Lorne Kennedy, with Ben Sanders and Charlie Gallant on board to represent in their way, both ends of the food chain on which these colonials hope to feed.
OUR BETTERS enjoyed some success in its première, largely, one suspects, because an audience developed some affection for its characters before their fault lines were revealed, which would account for Maxwell's references to Downton Abbey. But under Panych's direction, the tawdriness Maugham wove so subtly into his tale in the expectation of a slow reveal, is highlighted instead from the very top in the assumption that a modern audience seasoned by reality TV would rather spend three hours revelling in the story's venality than its humanity. Imagine Downton Abbey — as envisioned by Mark Burnett and starring the Kardashians.