Review of Lee MacDougall’s High Life (Soulpepper)

High Life is an unforgettable play. For those of us who saw it back in 1996 in its first coming, are delighted to see it return. Playwright Lee MacDougall has created a Canadian classic that has toured the world and been translated into a myriad of languages.

A better name for the play would be Low Life because the four protagonists are all unsavoury characters. They are career criminals and drug addicts, but MacDougall’s brilliance is writing such hilarious dialogue that they actually become endearing.

The high life of the title is the dream of nirvana, of planning a caper that’s going to net them the big score – so much money that they can happily engage in their nefarious activities forever more, such as buying all the drugs they want. It can also mean retirement, of a sort.

The plan in this case, as worked out by Dick (Diego Matamoros), involves stealing money from bank machines. (To divulge more about the plot would be a spoiler.) Dick is the brains behind the operation. His pal Bug (Michael Hanrahan) is the thuggish enforcer, while Donnie (Oliver Dennis) is the gentle, medical basket case. Bill (Mike Ross) is the new, clean-looking guy they need to be the front man.

Kudos to director Stuart Hughes who has played enough low life characters in his acting career to totally understand the genre. He manages to keep the humour and tension in a delicate balance. This show is cleanly directed with a surgeon’s precision, and the pacing is relentless. Nothing is gratuitous and every directing detail counts for something.

Lorenzo Savoini’s set is simple and functional – the sleazy apartment followed by the actual caper with the four men in a car. Steven Hawkins’ lighting is pin spot dramatic. Paul Humphrey’s sound design, however, is not clearly defined. There is an attempt at eerie music that just doesn’t come off.

Without a doubt, High Life is going to be a huge hit for Soulpepper, but I do have some quibbles with character nuance.

Matamoros’ Dick needs to be a shade more menacing. He’s more a business executive than someone who has spent most of his adult life in the slammer. I needed an edge. Dennis’ Donnie is a delight, but again, a bit more pathos and melancholy would not go amiss. He is, supposedly, at death’s door. Ross’ Billy is more of a brat than preening alpha male. He needs more charisma. I found him a shade too ordinary. As for Hanrahan, he’s perfect, nailing Bug as one dangerous dude. That being said, the chemistry between the men was palpable.

Watch for an extended run for this production.

And now for a couple of side notes. For starters, the off stage female voice admonishing the audience to “Shut off your fucking cell phones!” got the big laugh it deserved and fit right in with the tone of the play.

On a sadder note, about a half hour into the play, the show had to be stopped due to a medical emergency in the audience. This is where consummate professionalism comes in. The four actors were able to resume the show with barely a hint of lost rhythm. All power to them.

High Life written by Lee MacDougall, directed by Stuart Hughes, starring Diego Matamoros, Michael Hanrahan, Oliver Dennis and Mike Ross, Young Centre, Feb. 22 to Mar. 28, 2012.