Theatre Review – Blyth Festival 2019/Jumbo by Sean Dixon

Photo by Terry Manzo

The kindest thing to say about the Blyth Festival’s world premiere of Jumbo is that the play is not ready for prime time. Yet it should have worked, given the talent behind the project such as accomplished writer Sean Dixon and talented director Gil Garratt. I suspect that a lot of time was spent on design issues, such as how to present a giant elephant on stage, at the expense of a cogent script.

There is a great Jumbo story somewhere, but Dixon hasn’t found it.  Jumbo, the African elephant, was the beloved star of PT Barnum’s circus, who was killed by an unscheduled freight train while crossing the tracks in St. Thomas, Ontario in 1885. What a great local hook to Blyth, right? Unfortunately, rather than tell a linear story about Jumbo, which is interesting in and of itself, Dixon has created a jumble (pardon the almost pun) of characters looking for a plot. Nothing seems to gel. Dixon’s primary focus seems to be the bearded lady, Annie Jones, (Lucy Meanwell), and her loving relationship with Jumbo. At the end, Annie wants Jumbo’s corpse treated with dignity. That’s as dramatic as things get. The rest of the circus crowd have assorted threads of stories that seem like red herrings, not to mention a barber, a butcher’s boy, and a taxidermist who weave in and out at random. As for PT himself (Layne Coleman), his role is absolutely undefined, while the character of Mathew Scott, Jumbo’s keeper (Tony Munch) contributes virtually nothing to the action.

Photo by Terry Manzo

Manon Beaudoin, who certainly has circus creds according to her bio, is listed as circus master, but the acts are lame. A cartwheel here, a tumbling act there; a snake charmer here, an aerialist there. Alas, there is absolutely no hint of excitement in any of these vignettes, which at least would have provided interest to the mushy story. Adding to this weak plot line are several other feeble features like the unbelievably slow pacing that director Garratt has allowed, and, to be perfectly frank, some not very good acting from several of the company.

If anything positive can be said about Jumbo, it is the colourful visual elements courtesy Eric Bunnell’s sets and costumes and composer Deanna H. Choi’s bouncy circus music. Jumbo is depicted as a giant puppet, created by Gemma James-Smith, which really is quite effective, as cast members maneuvre his face and trunk with sticks.

Now, if only there was a meaningful storyline and better acting.

Blyth Festival, Jumbo by Sean Dixon, directed by Gil Garratt, Blyth Memorial Hall, Blyth ON, Jun. 12 to Aug. 10, 2019.

Theatre Review – Blyth Festival 2019/Cakewalk by Colleen Curran

Photo by Terry Manzo

Apparently, Cakewalk by Colleen Curran, which premiered at the Blyth Festival in 1984, and was remounted in 1986, has been one of the company’s most requested revivals. I actually saw both those shows and remember them fondly, so Curran’s zany comedy redux was welcome news. Happily, I can report that this 2019 production is right up to the mark.

Curran’s plot revolves around a small town baking competition, which is part of a wider Canada Day celebration. The grand prize is a trip to Paris for two, which is a very big deal indeed. The finalists, by alphabet, are waiting in the basement of the Balmoral Hotel, with Curran’s particular focus being the A-C room.

There we meet Leigh (Rachel Jones), named after Vivien Leigh, a nun who wants to win in order to send a fellow sister to Lourdes. She is in civilian dress and only her best friend Martha (Rebecca Auerbach) knows of her religious connection. Martha, too, is in the contest, hoping to bring attention to the new wave café she runs with her husband. Ruby (Catherine Fitch), scout den mother and wife of the town’s over-zealous tow truck owner, wants to win for a chance at a real honeymoon. Society matron Augusta (Caroline Gillis) wants the prestige of winning. She has entered the wedding cake meant for the next-day nuptials of her daughter Tiffany (Lucy Hill).  Finally, there is Taylor (Nathan Howe), a shy, clumsy, bachelor archaeologist who has entered the contest with future romance in mind. Actor Robert King plays the unseen announcer who is overseeing the Canada Day events.

Photo by Terry Manzo

As laugh generators, Curran has embedded a slew of complications into her plot. Leigh and Taylor fall in love, and they have to cope with her nunhood. Augusta has to keep hiding Tiffany’s cake from her enraged daughter, who wants the cake to be a surprise, and not on public display. Tiffany also has doubts concerning her impending marriage. Ruby is the villain who does everything she can to sabotage the other contestants, while Martha spends time running interference for everyone. All the while, the announcer keeps interrupting the flow with celebration trivia. Comings and goings occur in dizzying order, with verbal and physical play being the name of the game. In short, the two acts are sheer inane farce from beginning to end.

To pull off a farce, you need relentless pacing and committed performances. Farce only works if the actors play their roles as if their characters are facing life and death situations. The tension must be palpable, and kudos to director Kelli Fox for ensuring that it is. In other words, a strong woman director has brought out very strong performances in her actors. Everything about this revival is dynamic and clearly defined as Fox’s cast goes for the jugular. The action never flags and the laughs come a mile a minute. There is not a weak character or a weak moment on stage.

A talented all female creative team is behind the production, complimenting director Fox’s desire to keep the setting in 1984. Everything is retro. Laura Gardner’s set is a suitably functional, concrete room with a pay phone on the wall, but this drab setting allows the designer’s fanciful cake creations to shine out. Her period 1980s costumes are spot on as well. Louise Guinand has provided the garish lighting one would find in a hotel basement, while Verne Good’s sound design is a great compendium of 1980s music.

This production is all about perfectly chosen details by the director, her cast members, and her fellow creators. Cakewalk has been lovingly restored and remains thoroughly enjoyable.

Photo by Terry Manzo

Blyth Festival 2019, Cakewalk by Colleen Curran, directed by Kelli Fox, Blyth Memorial Hall,  Jun. 26 to Aug. 10, 2019.