theatre preview

Photo by Doug Williams. Actors are Alison Raine and Adam Henderson.THE LADY'S NOT FOR BURNING
United Players
Jericho Arts Centre
September 9-October 3
604-224-8007, ext.

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 Even after being superseded by the new drama of Osborne and Pinter, Beckett and Churchill, Fry's work remained part of everyday speech.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.

Jerry Wasserman

last updated: Tuesday, December 28, 2004 8:14 PM
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