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by Noel Coward
United Players
Jericho Arts Centre
April 7-30
604 224 8007, ext. 2

In addition to his sparkling comedies of English manners, Noel Coward was known for his devotion to theatrical charities, like the home for aged, indigent actresses featured in his 1960 play Waiting in the Wings.  Local actor/director Anna Hagan has been in the forefront of a similar venture in Vancouver.  PAL, the subsidized housing project for senior members of the performing arts community, is set to open in Coal Harbour this summer.

With Hagan at the helm and a corps of nine delightful actresses of a certain age at the centre of an 18-person ensemble, United Players deliver an altogether charming production of Coward’s love letter to the theatre.

We’re in the sitting room of The Wings (warmly designed by Debbie Abrami), where the actresses gather to share tales of their former glories, exchange catty remarks about the competition (like that opera singer “with the vast bust”), and commiserate with gallows humour about their present situation: “we all have one foot in the grave, anyhow.”

May (Barbara Wallace) and Lotta (Nancy Bell), rivals who fought over a husband thirty years ago, haven’t spoken since. But in the face of the real problems of growing old they overcome their differences in a lovely scene. 

There’s also feisty Bonita (Anne Marsh), cutting Cora (Hilary Parizat), who has many of the play’s funniest lines, the hilariously pessimistic Irishwoman Deirdre (Bernie Greening), and Sarita (Royane McFarlane), who is “a bit round the bend.”  Her dementia is sometimes funny, sometimes dangerous—she almost burns the place down—and very touching in the scene where she’s taken off to a nursing home and says goodbye to her friends. All these women turn in fine performances.

Coward takes pains to remind us that aging and having to rely on charity is not all fun and games.  “I hate every minute of every day,” says May.  “Every meal chokes me with humiliation.”

But for the most part the women endure their twilight years with grace and good humour.  Despite some grumbling, everyone is fundamentally good-natured, from the sweet old gentleman (Anthony Dodd) who loyally visits the ancient starlet he’s always worshipped, to the matron (Nina Shoroplova) and her assistant (Rob Duncan) who run the place, and the young journalist (Christina Patterson in a nice performance), who looks for a while like the villainess.

Waiting in the Wings is far from Coward at his wittiest.  The play is a few scenes too long, deteriorating into something of a lame musical revue at the end (despite the fine piano of Toby Dent).  But it’s an apt and charming reminder of a couple of truths: growing old isn’t for sissies, and there’s no business like show business.

Jerry Wasserman


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