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Brief Encounters

The Shaw Festival serves up a delightful trio of Noel Coward's one-act plays. logo
Patrick Galligan and Deborah Hay in Brief Encounters
(© David Cooper)
If the Shaw Festival needed a reason to prove why it reigns as one of the most important repertory theater companies around, one need look no further than its production of Noël Coward's Brief Encounters as definitive validation of that fact.

These three one-act plays, which are part of Coward's larger Tonight at 8:30 series, contain the lustiest set designs seen on Southern Ontario's coveted stage in years, accented by simulated passing trains and a nocturnal oceanfront flirting ground. And thanks to a stellar cast led by Patrick Galligan and Deborah Hay (who play the leads in each work) who seize every comical moment, the master playwright's genius for romantic absurdity comes shining through.

In Still Life, a lush tale of affairs takes shape in a railway station refreshment room. Two strangers, Laura Jesson and Alex Harvey, are trapped in marital doldrums and eventually firm up a plan to give in to sin but all does not go according to plan. The dramatic uncertainty of the situation is an examination of the human condition's weaknesses in the way only Coward knows how to probe.

We Were Dancing is best described as a willful satire of love at first sight. Here, it's a first dance between Louise Charteris and Karl Sandys, a moment that is sealed with a kiss. Louise's husband, Hubert, is dimwittedly soured by what he has witnessed as the newly connected hearts begin to humorously defend their coming together. Ludicrous behavior rides high throughout a myriad of playful scenes, until the accidental couple concedes to the futility of the situation and part ways when the sun rises on the island country club.

The finale, Hands Across The Sea, unfolds in a London apartment where British Commander Peter Gilpin and his wife, Lady Maureen, are joined by various acquaintances and a couple they think they remember from a trip overseas. It's a glamorous and stylized romp, rife with mistaken identities and much laughter.

Galligan is delightfully charming in his noble roles, but it's Hay who is the eyebrow raiser, proving to be far more adept in this sort of classic theater than anyone who knows her work in new plays would have imagined. Director Jackie Maxwell has previously flaunted panache and superior attention to detail, but reaches new highs with this pleasurable blend of wit and inanity.

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