To bed, Mr. Foster

‘On a First Name Ba­sis’ con­trived, sen­ti­men­tal, ut­terly pre­dictable

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - THE ISLAND - Colm Mag­ner Colm Mag­ner, who is a mem­ber of the Canadian Theatre Crit­ics As­so­ci­a­tion, has worked as a play­wright, ac­tor, di­rec­tor and teacher for more than 30 years. His col­umn, In the Wings, will ap­pear reg­u­larly dur­ing the sum­mer. To reach Colm, email i

“On a First Name Ba­sis,” writ­ten by Canadian play­wright Norm Foster, play­ing at the Vic­to­ria Play­house, tells an un­likely story in­volv­ing a world-fa­mous spy nov­el­ist named David Kil­bride and his house­keeper, Miss Lucy Hop­per­staad. Kil­bride writes spy nov­els with ti­tles like “The Span­ish Ar­range­ment” and “The Irish Plan,” which should give you a big hint about the type of play he in­hab­its.

Where do th­ese two char­ac­ters live you may ask? Well I’m not sure. It seems to be some un­de­fined land that has a sim­i­lar kind of class sys­tem to Bri­tain pre-1950.

Kil­bride is cool about some­one be­ing gay, so my guess is we are not in Saudi Ara­bia. Are we in Canada? I don’t know. I gather Mr. Foster leaves place am­bigu­ous so his play can in­habit the­atres any­where from Tal­la­has­see to Tim­buktu.

Here’s the plot: Our spy nov­el­ist de­cides one day that he must know the in­ti­mate de­tails of his house­keeper’s life, af­ter em­ploy­ing her for 28 years. The rea­son for his sud­den de­sire will un­fold like most plot points in this play — like the sound of a loud thud on con­crete. It seems Miss Hop­per­staad, while clean­ing Mr. Kil­bride’s toi­lets for 28 years, has de­vel­oped warm and fuzzy feel­ings for her em­ployer. And so what hap­pens next is he plies her with co­pi­ous amounts

of wine and scotch, and then more scotch, and she then (nat­u­rally, as would hap­pen) passes out, and the re­main­der of the play is a kind of avant-garde thing — an hour and 50 min­utes of glo­ri­ous si­lence, punc­tu­ated by snor­ing.

Sadly I’m kid­ding. That would have been bear­able. What re­ally hap­pens is that she also sud­denly shows an in­ter­est in getting to know Kil­bride and they get talk­ing and talk­ing and talk­ing.

Oh, boy, do they talk, for two long hours! Hav­ing to sit through this con­trived, sen­ti­men­tal, ut­terly pre­dictable clap­trap, where cancer and the death of a child are shame­lessly thrown in as plot points in be­tween a few inane jokes, is, in fact, a tor­tur­ous ex­pe­ri­ence.

Lee J. Camp­bell as Kil­bride mirac­u­lously finds a shred of some­thing in this script to hang a cred­i­ble per­for­mance on. He shows some spark. Martha Irv­ing as Hop­per­staad does not. Her per­for­mance is stiff and un­be­liev­able, both phys­i­cally and emo­tion­ally, and her ren­di­tion of the ef­fects of the co­pi­ous amounts of al­co­hol the two drink to­gether is, to put it gen­tly, lack­ing in tech­ni­cal fi­nesse.

Irv­ing isn’t helped much by the fact nei­ther di­rec­tor Robert Ma­cLean nor as­so­ciate di­rec­tor Melissa Mullen (two di­rec­tors for a two-handed play?) saw fit to ask her to re­move her apron in the sec­ond act. You know, get a bit looser once all the deeply buried (but ut­terly in­vis­i­ble) love and lust sup­pos­edly come to the fore? Maybe she could even kick off a shoe or two? Get closer than six feet to the man she has sup­pos­edly been pin­ing for 28 years?

There is vir­tu­ally no move­ment on stage, so if two peo­ple sit­ting in at­trac­tive red chairs (thank scenic de­signer W. Scott MacCon­nell for those) bab­bling on about their lives for two hours is your cup of tea, by all means see this play.

Re­cur­ring prob­lems with play choice seem to con­stantly in­hibit the Vic­to­ria Play­house, which begs the ques­tion why the po­si­tion of artis­tic di­rec­tor has gone un­filled for four years. This is a tax­payer-funded, not­for-profit pub­lic theatre, not a fam­ily busi­ness, and it needs to start be­ing run as such.

First or­der of the day should be to hire some­one who knows what a good play looks like. Be­cause it’s long past time to put Mr. Foster to bed.

SUB­MIT­TED PHO­TOS

“On a First Name Ba­sis”, now play­ing at the Vic­to­ria Play­house, features Lee J. Camp­bell and Martha Irv­ing.

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