LADY'S NOT FOR BURNING
September 9-October 3
604-224-8007, ext. www.unitedplayers.com
Back in the middle of the last century Christopher Fry was regarded
as one of the great hopes of British playwriting. Along with T.S.
Eliot and W.H. Auden, Fry wrote serio-comic verse plays meant to
lift British drama out of its sterile drawing-room rut. His popular
success was substantial, with four shows in London's West End in
1950 alone. He was regularly studied in schools, as the multiple
copies of his play texts in the drama sections of used bookstores
attest. Even after being superseded by the new drama of Osborne
and Pinter, Beckett and Churchill, Fry's work remained part of
everyday speech. Remember Margaret Thatcher's reputation? "The
lady's not for turning."
United Players' season-opening revival helps explain Fry's postwar
popularity and, to some extent, his current obscurity. Set in an
English village, ostensibly in 1400 but with no attempt to recreate
a historical epoch, The Lady's
Not for Burning is a gentle springtime
comedy in which a nihilist ex-soldier who wants to die, but can't
get anyone to grant his wish, and a rationalist young woman who
wants to live but is condemned to die for witchcraft, find love
and happiness and melt the hearts of various eccentric villagers.
Despite a patina of Shavian/Shakespearian intellectuality, the
piece is really just a platform for Fry's verbal pyrotechnics.
Soldiering is nothing more than "prying open ribs to let men
go down the indefinite path that needs no pass." A shooting
star is "an excess of phlegm in the solar system," and
the Mayor seems "as vexed as a hen's hind-feather in a wind." Inoffensively
entertaining with minimal highbrow pretensions and a subdued anti-war,
anti-post-war-witchhunting theme ("I love you but the world's
not changed," the young woman sighs at the end), the play
somewhat awkwardly combines the quaint and mildly hip. Think High
Tea at the Da Kine Cafe.
The production, too, mixes styles and accents. The acting across
the cast of amateurs and professionals is very good, with Adam
Henderson (who also co-directs with Tom Kerr) especially effective
as the sharp-tongued ex-soldier. Like most of the younger performers
he utilizes naturalistic North American speech and body language.
The exception is Alison Raine as the young woman, clearly classically
trained, who heavily inflects each line in carefully articulated
Standard English. She's gorgeous and her technique is admirable,
but it feels like she's in a different play. I'd love to see her
in Bard on the Beach. Among the older townsfolk Diana Sandburg
as the Mayor's sister gets the show's biggest laughs in her Pythonesque
English style, while Abraham Jedidiah, terrific as the tiny, aged
Chaplain, seems less York than New York.
I enjoyed watching this show in the Jericho Arts Centre's cozy
black-box theatre. United Players has established a high standard
for semi-professional production and a repertoire of plays unlikely
to be seen anywhere else in the city. Fry's verse drama turned
out to be a theatrical dead-end, but it's still worth seeing what
all the fuss was about.