Blog

A Theatre Buff Says Good-bye For Now

This theatre buff has a host of performances lined up for the summer, but there is a hitch to the review process: I’m in a time crunch and could not be happier.

Theatre2

Some of you will recall that I started to comment on plays in November, 2015. It was an intentional activity meant to reconnect neural circuits eleven months after the first of two concussions, and it was an important therapy. The writing forced me to make sense of notes written in the dark, to remember details, and then to coherently describe a performance. The reviews, and I use that term with reservation now, boosted my confidence: even though I could not create, I was able to describe.

Twenty-five months after Concussion #1 (January 2017) my characters returned: they had been AWOL since December 2014. For the next nine months I created like a possessed woman, and I note as I review blog posts that I did not publish as many reviews during that time. Concussion #2 struck in October 2017. Creativity, once again, went AWOL but the ability to describe remained; I resumed the ‘therapy’ of writing about the plays I had seen.

Theatre was a life buoy during these difficult months and years. Not only could I not create, I could not read, and when I did read I could not remember what I had read. Theatre took me out of the terror I experienced each day. It offered an alternate universe, the one that I have encountered when I become totally absorbed by a book. The morning after a production, when I sat down to my keyboard, the performance from the previous night grounded me. I could see it; I could feel it; I could describe it.

So, what does this preamble have to do with theatre reviews? It’s my way of saying “Thank you and Good-bye!” My muse returned this March; I’m both grateful and thrilled. I began a new manuscript that addresses literacy. It’s fiction. I also revised the second manuscript on aging. This latter one has just come back from my editor and there is more work to do. Time set aside for the keyboard is now strictly reserved for creation and revision.

Since March I have seen a few plays that I would highly recommend: Come From Away, Billy Elliott, Rope, and Waitress. From now on, my recommendations will come via Facebook (Bonnie Lendrum) and Instagram (Bonnieleal). As I promised at the outset of this blog,I will only recommend plays that have absolutely engaged me.

Thank you to everyone who took the time to read reviews over the past four years. It is my hope that you have come to enjoy theatre as much as I do.

An Avid Reader Comments For The First Time

One of the gifts I have received from readers is their comments and their reviews on Amazon, Indigo and Goodreads. Hence, I hereby apologize to all the authors I have read over the past four years; I have failed to review your books. During that period, two concussions interfered with both reading and writing. And when I had stretches where I could do both, I chose to work on my manuscript and comment on theatre. Today I will make up, in part, for lost time.

For those of you who read my blog, A Theatre Buff Reviews, you will know that I comment rather than formally review (and that makes me think I should call the blog A Theatre Buff Comments!).  I do that for a few reasons:

  • I only comment on theatre I have enjoyed and would urge others to see;
  • My comments are a thank you to the playwrights, actors and producers whose work has given me pleasure. 
  • If I were to monetize my site, which I will not do, I would be obliged to write a formal review. A comment is my way of recognising the excellence I have encountered.

I propose in this inaugural piece to comment on books in a similar vein. Many of these comments will be brief because there have been several months between the reading and the writing.

While each of the books I comment on is different one from the other, they are similar in that the author writes from a perspective of passionate engagement with an issue that exists in the world. And I like that. If your reading preferences lean toward brain candy, there will be none here. Even though the books are fiction, I came away from each of them with a deep awareness and understanding of the issue that compelled the author to put fingers to keyboard.

Over the past few months, there were books that stood out:

The Left Handed Dinner Party by Myrl Coulter is a compilation of linked short stories. Each is crisply written and emotionally evocative. The characters feel familiar, like the family we have known forever or the friendships we have maintained for decades. There are the stories we hide and the stories we share. Coulter has revealed all.

Women Talking by Miriam Toews is an imagined two-day conversation amongst a group of Mennonite women who have been the victims of the Bolivian “ghost” rapes. The women must decide one of three options: do nothing; stay and fight; leave. Their courage in the face of their constraints is formidable.

Prayers for the Stolen by Jennifer Clement explores drug culture in Mexico. Through the eyes of a young country girl, Ladydi, Clement exposes the underbelly of violence, prostitution, and gun traffic. Clements draws her characters and her settings with exquisite care.

Gun Love by Jennifer Clement explores the traffic in guns from the USA to Mexico. Clement has chosen to tell her story through Pearl, a young girl who lives with her mother in a car on the edge of a trailer park. Pearl is too young to be judgemental and still young enough to be curious about everything. Her resilience is her salvation.

Washington Black by Esi Edugyen is an epic tale of a young slave who was born with a “ring of luck around [his] neck.” It’s a story about adventure, risk, love, survival, and betrayal told as historical fiction. If it were not such a doorstopper of a novel, I would reread it in a heartbeat.

Half-Blood Blues by Esi Edugyen follows a quartet of black jazz musicians during the early period of the Second World War, in Germany, when it was not safe to play jazz or to be black. The story is a recounting of that period, decades later, by one of the musicians. It’s a tale of artistry, craft, desperation, hope, and reconciliation. I have returned to this book to re-read sections, and may re-read the entire book.

Through Black Spruce by Joseph Boyden is told through two primary characters: a middle-aged man who has been left in a coma and his twenty-something niece who comes to visit him in hospital. Boyden takes us through terrain that most of us will not encounter—the northern woods that are only accessible by bush plane or canoe, life on a reservation, photo shoots in Montreal and celebrity life in New York City. It’s a story that explores the glamour and the grief associated with the cross border traffic in drugs. If you have read Orenda, Through Black Spruce is a very different, but equally compelling book.

Nuala by Kimmy Beach is a fable. Beach has created a society where giant wooden puppets that come to awareness and are capable of “think-talk” are revered. Flesh and blood people are their servants who create the movement and who teach the puppet. The fable is thought provoking to say the least; its messages are not explicit. My take-away is that Nuala is an exploration of all consuming love and adoration, caregiver exhaustion, class tension (people who think vs. people who do), and master-student rivalry. Nuala is beautifully crafted.

The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood is unbridled, irreverent, and entertaining. It is set in a dystopian near-future with economic conditions not too different from our current times. The principal characters, a husband and wife, trade their dispirited existence of living in their car for a lifelong commitment to a designed community. It’s the assurance of shelter, food and clothing that seals the deal. However, to quote W.D. Gilbert “Things are seldom what they seem, skim milk masquerades as cream.” Atwood’s has created an alternate universe that her characters willingly enter, and then with considerable creativity, attempt to leave. Enjoy!

Bonnie Lendrum is the author of Autumn’s Grace, a story of how one family manages the experience of palliative care with hope and humour despite sibling conflicts, generational pulls and career demands. Autumn’s Grace is a powerful commentary on the need for well-organized and well-funded palliative care in private homes and in residential hospices. It’s a gift to people who would like to be prepared as they help fulfill the final wishes of a family member or friend.

Next To Normal Offers Hope

Mirvish’s production of Next To Normal is a poignant and thoughtful depiction of mental illness. The play won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2010  for its creative team, Brian Yorker and Tom Kitt. Next To Normal is a musical which works extraordinarily well. I think it’s because many of the pieces are done in a fugue-like manner, with two or more interweaving voices. The complexity and richness of the music and lyrics acts as a counterpoint to the set which is stark, yet elegant. It transitions between the home of two architects, and a psychiatrist’s office/clinic. The back wall which is paneled with translucent screens signals transitions in space and mood as its colour changes. It’s very effective.

Ma-Anne Dionisio & Brandon Antonio. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

The story introduces us to a family in which the wife and mother, Diana (Ma-Anne Dionisio), has had recurring encounters with mental illness since the birth of their daughter, Natalie (Stephanie Sy) sixteen years ago. The husband and father, Dan (Troy Adams), is both stalwart and anxious. The only family member who has an apparently healthy relationship with Diana is the son, Gabe (Brandon Antonio). The interactions between these two are typical of a cavalier teenage boy and his worried mother. We understand more about their relationship on the night of Gabe’s eighteenth birthday, when Natalie brings her new boyfriend (Nathan Carrol) to the family dinner table. It’s a plot churning moment to say the least. The acting is intense and on point at all times. Louise Pitre as Doctor Madden has a smaller but by no means lesser part. She’s a figurative (and in the play…literal) rock star of a psychiatrist who guides Diana and Dan through treatment options. 

While this description of an evening’s entertainment may sound grim, the play is anything but that. It offers hope. And that’s important when we consider that one on five Canadians will experience some form of mental illness at some point in their lives. The reality is that few people escape the grief of mental illness whether by affliction or association. 

Next To Normal is a play about a family who may never achieve ‘normal’, but it is a family who will be content to live as close to normal as they can. The night I attended, the audience gave this performance a standing ovation. It’s perhaps the second I have seen in my seven years of attending Off Mirvish productions.


Next To Normal is at the CAA Theatre, 651 Yonge Street, Toronto until May 19, 2019


Bonnie Lendrum is the author of Autumn’s Grace, the story of how one family manages the experience of palliative care with hope and humour despite sibling conflicts, generational pulls and career demands. Autumn’s Grace is a powerful commentary on the need for well-organized and well-funded palliative care in private homes and in residential hospices. It’s a gift to people who would like to be prepared as they help fulfill the final wishes of a family member or friend.

Review: The Last Ship

Captains of industry and those who hail from the landed gentry are not likely to enjoy The Last Ship as much as we who carry the memories of a ship’s millwright in our DNA. While the former may squirm, the latter may experience a thrum, as I did, in those ancient cells. The call was visceral and emotional.

The Last Ship is a musical that explores the demise of the shipyards in Tyneside in the late 1980s. If musical and demise of industry sound like an oxymoron, I understand. But think of Come From Away and 911. Artistry, compassion, and music can surmount loss and grief. And that is exactly what happens in The Last Ship.


Sting and the cast of THE LAST SHIP – Toronto Production 2019.
Photo credit: Cylla von Tiedemann.

There are three strands to this play that covers a span of seventeen years. There’s the story of a ship’s foreman, Jackie White, (Sting) who keeps a rough and tumble crew of skilled craftsmen (millwright’s, carpenters etc.) towing the line while his wife, Peggy White, (Jackie Morrison) a Registered Nurse bandages up the men’s scraps and breaks, and hands out pills which will never touch the core of what is killing them—mesothelioma. Then there are two high school sweethearts Meg Dawson (Francis McNamee), a smart young thing who is writing her ‘O’ levels with a view to becoming a lawyer or doctor, and Gideon Fletcher (Oliver Saville) who cannot bear to sign up for work in the yards. Gideon leaves and returns seventeen years later. And finally, there is the story of work—the meaning of craftsmen’s jobs that have been done by generations of forebears—the camaraderie of a tight-knit group who have known each other since infancy—and the implications for middle-aged workers and their community when work is taken away by global competition.

The set is extraordinary. The combination of set pieces, video, and overlaid screens can move the audience easily from the gates of the shipyard to the interiors of a pub or homes, alongside a blast furnace, and inside a chapel. And throughout there is the presence of the sea—its thunderous roar and its saltwater spray. The set lighting is exquisite. At one point, there is an image of the men inside the chapel that looks like an old master’s painting. The set and lighting designers deserve their due!

The score captured me from the beginning. There are the songs and their music which tell the shipyard story through reminiscence, sorrow, and better times. Then there are the foot-stomping rhythms which have the same effect on me as tabla drumming. They call me, and I hope you, to gather round and bear witness. The Last Ship pulls out of Toronto at the end of March. Get on board before it leaves!

The Last Ship is playing at the Princess of Wales Theatre until  Sunday, March 24, 2019

Bonnie Lendrum is the author of Autumn’s Grace, the story of how one family manages the experience of palliative care with hope and humour despite sibling conflicts, generational pulls and career demands. Autumn’s Grace is a powerful commentary on the need for well-organized and well-funded palliative care in private homes and in residential hospices. It’s a gift to people who would like to be prepared as they help fulfill the final wishes of a family member or friend. 

A Theatre Buff Reviews Elf – The Musical

Mid-way through Theatre Aquarius’ performance of Elf –The Musical, I realized I could not stop smiling. There’s enough word-play to satisfy the adults with children in hand, and there’s choreography and singing that ranges from the comic to Gee-Wiz! How do they sing and dance, so well, at the same time?!

For Elf novices (which I was before this production), Elf is a love story, wrapped inside a lost and found story. It begins with Buddy the elf (Brent Thiessen) learning from Santa (Neil Barclay), that he is a human, and that his father who lives in New York City is on Santa’s ‘Naughty List’. Buddy does what any lost elf would do; he walks south for 3500 miles to find his father. Fortunately, when he arrives in NYC it’s Christmastime. Not only is he seasonally dressed in his elf clothing, but stores are also decorating and Santas are proliferating. His father, however, has not caught the spirit; he believes that “Christmas always gets in the way.” It becomes Buddy’s mission to help his father and other NewYorkers begin to care about Santa Claus. Without telling more, I will say, “and therein lies the love story.”

The show is supported by a set that combines AV backdrops with traditionally built pieces on flies. The observant, or perhaps obsessive, may have noted that in this production Santa’s sleigh is supposed to be powered by belief, but as we see Santa flying over Manhattan there are reindeer pulling the sleigh. The acting is not only superb, it’s a series of high energy triple-threat performances. And the tap-dancing hearkens back to movies from the 1930s and ’40s.

Perhaps the most remarkable feature of Theatre Aquarius’ production is Brent Thiessen’s smile. He radiated light, love, and goodwill, which is what the season is supposed to be about. Go see Elf with the whole family!

 Elf – The Musical is playing at Theatre Aquarius in Hamilton until December 24, 2018.

Bonnie Lendrum is the author of Autumn’s Grace, the story of how one family manages the experience of palliative care with hope and humour despite sibling conflicts, generational pulls and career demands. Autumn’s Grace is a powerful commentary on the need for well-organized and well-funded palliative care in private homes and in residential hospices. 

Charlie and The Chocolate Factory Whips Up Delicious Confections

I’ll begin with a confession. My husband and I drove into Toronto this week to see Charlie And The Chocolate Factory having never read the book, nor seen the movies*. The thought at top of mind as we sat in traffic was, Why are we going to see another bloody musical, and a children’s production to boot?  Yes. The mood was definitely Grinchish. Fortunately it dissipated within minutes of Charlie Bucket (Henry Boshart) appearing on stage, and we settled in to enjoy the performance.

The story, in quick summary, is about the series of events that transpire after Willy Wonka (Noah Weisberg), the owner  of a chocolate factory, decides to give away his business to someone with pure imagination—someone who embodies “believing is seeing”. His challenge though is to find such a person. For the cynics in the audience, it’s clear at the outset that Wonka’s legacy will be to Charlie Bucket who “can’t stop making something out of nothing.” But it’s the fun, hi-jinks and creative ‘just desserts’ getting to that point that will make even skeptics laugh and clap with joy.

2018- charlie-hero_slide_The-Cast
The cast of Roald Dahl’s CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY – Photo by Joan Marcus

The Mirvish production delights on many levels. The acting is superb; the choreography is exuberant and entertaining; and the set, visuals, and costumes are candy-store bright. The story itself is engaging. I loved the portrayal of healthy inter-generational relationships, and melted at the fantasy dance between Charlie’s mother (Amanda Rose) and the ghost of his deceased father. A review would not be complete without noting the brilliant puppetry that makes the Oompa-Loompas come to life.

If you have children in your life who love song, dance or just plain silliness, take them in hand to see Charlie And The Chocolate Factory. It will be a delicious treat—without the calories or the caries.

* There have been two movies. Gene Wilder and Johnny Depp have each performed in the role of Willy Wonka.

Charlie And The Chocolate Factory is playing at The Princess of Wales in Toronto until January 6, 2019

Bonnie Lendrum is the author of Autumn’s Grace, the story of how one family manages the experience of palliative care with hope and humor despite sibling conflicts, generational pulls and career demands. Autumn’s Grace is a powerful commentary on the need for well-organized and well-funded palliative care in private homes and in residential hospices. 

A Theatre Buff Reviews The Father

There are public nightmares, and then there are private terrors. We know the former well, or think we do, as they repeat themselves on the news cycle. But a diagnosis for which there is no treatment can be equally harrowing as it slowly and persistently shreds the core of self and family. Dementia is one such diagnosis, and Florian Zeller’s play, The Father, depicts the horror.

2018-The Father (2)In short, The Father is a story about a daughter (Raquel Duffy) trying to manage her life as her widowed father (Eric Peterson) slides into cognitive decline. Or is The Father a story about an elderly engineer whose daughter brings strangers into his home — strangers who infantilize him, steal from him, and treat him badly? The situation is not unique. For the daughter there are the conflicting demands of fidelity, a career, a relationship, and geography; for the father there is the accumulation of losses — his watch, his words, his trust, and his recognition. And yes, there is abuse, both verbal and physical. I wondered if we were to also infer the subtleties of financial abuse (Yes. It does happen.) as the set and stage props gradually changed,  or whether the set changes were a metaphor for cumulative losses.

Eric Peterson is spot-on in his brilliant portrayal of cognitive decline. He is well supported by Raquel Duffy, Brad Rudy, Molly Kidder, Tess Degenstein and Mathew MacFadzean. On opening night the cast received a standing ovation, I however remained seated. I needed to compose myself; my eyes were wet and my mascara had run. The Father was an astonishing portrayal of events I have seen far too often in private homes and public institutions.

The Father is playing at Theatre Aquarius, Hamilton until November 10, 2018.

Bonnie Lendrum is the author of Autumn’s Grace, the story of how one family manages the experience of palliative care with hope and humor despite sibling conflicts, generational pulls and career demands. Autumn’s Grace is a powerful commentary on the need for well-organized and well-funded palliative care in private homes and in residential hospices.