L-R: Albrecht Richter (Fritz Dickmann), Lyia Vivian (Elizabeth Marshall Black), George Bourne (Joe Kirkendall), Nora Shattock (Celeste Roberts), and Chorley Bannister (Joel Sandel). Photo Credit: RicOrnelProductions.com
Peace in Our Time
Written by: Noël Coward
Directed by: Rebecca Greene Udden
Company: Main Street Theatre in collaboration with the University of Houston School of Theatre and Dance
Run Dates: Sept 13 – Oct 19, 2014
“We got licked. We lost the battle of Britain”, announces bar owner Fred Shattock unnecessarily to the British patrons in his pub who are all too aware of the occupation they find themselves under. The year is 1940 (at least at the start of the play) and this alternative universe where Nazis occupy England, Churchill has been shot and the Isle of Wight is now a POW camp, is uncharacteristically courtesy of Noel Coward and his rarely produced 1947 play, Peace in Our Time. Coward, known for his fizzy drawing-room comedies that cast a satiric eye on London’s upper classes, here sets aside his trademark genre and instead delivers a ‘what if ‘scenario focusing on working class men and women who have very little to laugh at indeed. It’s an interesting scenario, this switching masters narrative, and one that Coward was by all accounts quite interested to explore. But sometimes there’s a reason a play is rarely produced and sometimes it seems even a great writer falls flat when stepping too far outside of his wheelhouse. Peace in Our Time is a clunky bore of a show made even more bereft of any resonant emotion thanks to some slipshod direction, sloppy acting and a set design that doesn’t quite gel.
To examine how an occupied Britain would react to their new reality, Coward sets his play entirely inside Shattock’s bar. The set up allows for a stream of patrons (24 actors in total) to come and go in flashcard like fashion spanning several years (1940 to 45), ostensibly representing the developing views of the people over time. Instead what we get are snapshot clichés. Oh look, there’s Mr. and Mrs. Grainger (Carl Masterson and Lisa A. Williams) the couple who suffers in silence over their missing son. Over there is Lyia Vivian (Elizabeth Marshall Black) and George Bourne (Joe Kirkendall) the wealthy couple not all that perturbed by the turn of events. Then there is Chorley Bannister (Joel Sandel) the magazine editor with sycophantic leanings towards his German conquerors. It’s not that these characters wouldn’t have existed in Coward’s imagined scenario that’s the problem. It’s that they are thinly drawn as nothing more than the description on the page. Inner lives or any sense of development/motivation gets utterly dismissed by Coward’s preachy heavy-handed writing that is far more obsessed with boasting the stiff upper lip and ultimate patriotic resistance of the English than it is in examining that it might have actually felt like for these people. And if the characters aren’t feeling, the audience can’t be expected to either. When Shattock and his wife Nora (Rutherford Cravens and Celeste Roberts) miss their son and eventually experience the worst kind of parental tragedy, dry eyes abound. We don’t really know these characters and by the time we are asked to respond to their grief, we’re bored from trying.
While it is true that an artist can only do so much with what is on the page, Director Rebecca Greene Udden does little to bring gravitas to the action. Instead she often has her cast scrabbling about like chickens on the small stage resulting in an unfortunate comedic effect during many of the play’s more serious moments. Actors run in and out, fall on the floor, slam doors, and gather together etc. in an unattractive and gawky fashion making it seem at times like the only stage direction was “go!”
Similarly the cast in general does the play no favours save for Pamela Vogel as Janet Braid, the plucky middle age patron not afraid to stand up for England in public. Vogel manages to rise beyond the script’s shortcomings and brings as nice amount of warmth and interest to her character. The rest of the cast varies from passably forgettable to egregiously ill-accented. In the mouths of more than one performer, poorly executed trills of Cheerio and Right-O were enough to make your teeth itch. The German characters fair no better with their, “Pahaps zey vill lehrn.” But accents aside, it’s an age divide that really separates the fine from the not so fine in this production. As part of the collaboration with the University of Houston’s Theatre and Dance department, several emerging performers have been cast into the mix. As a reviewer, I am hesitant to comment on student actors as I feel that they should generally be immune to the critic’s eye until they are more fully fledged and have had time to play, make mistakes and learn. But this is a professional production and it would be remiss not to point out that the younger cast members here just aren’t up to the task despite some overly eager efforts.
With the script and the performances lacking, it would have been a welcome distraction if Claire A. Jac Jones’ set had been anything interesting to look at. Instead the pub’s unadorned interior with large horseshoe-shape bar and wooden tables and chairs takes on a minimal look fairly befitting occupation. What was distracting in a problematic way however were all the empty ashtrays strewn throughout the set. Empty because no one was smoking. This is England in 1940, how could no one be smoking? Somewhere it seems Jac Jones’ and Green Udden got their wires crossed in what I imagine could have been a “smoke or not to smoke” conversation resulting in yet another sloppy imagining of a play that to my mind, should had been left on the shelf.
For Noel Coward fans – This is not Coward the way you know and love him. Nor is it a side of Coward you need to see. Neither well written nor entertaining, you can stay away with your love of the great writer intact. SKIP IT
For the occasional theater goer – At around two hours with little dramatic arc or tension or anything to really grab hold of, this play is a slog. One that you might appreciate for the idea, but not in execution. SKIP IT
For theatre junkies – There seems to be a trend these days of companies producing early or little known works of great playwrights. And while it can be interesting to see a writer’s first attempts or side steps, there is also much to be said for leaving the not so great stuff out of your canon. SKIP IT