Is there a doctor in the house? More like: Is there a doctor anywhere nearby?
La grande séduction, Quebec screenwriter Ken Scott’s beloved 2003 film about a small town that goes to hilarious lengths to convince a visiting physician to put down roots in their community, has found timely new life this summer in a pair of live theatrical adaptations – one in English and one in French.
Indeed, in the type of coincidence rarely seen outside of farce, these two long-in-gestation, pandemic-delayed stage shows premiered during the same week in Prince Edward Island and Quebec.
First, the Charlottetown Festival opened a new musical called Tell Tale Harbour, created by the theatre company’s artistic director, Adam Brazier, with former rock band Great Big Sea’s Alan Doyle (who also stars), Bob Foster and Edward Riche.
The Atlantic Canadian musical-theatre mecca reports that the show, which is alternating with long-running hit Anne of Green Gables: The Musical playing in the 1,106-seat theatre at the Confederation Centre for the Arts, is the fastest-selling in its history.
Then, just outside Montreal in Saint-Jérôme, Que., Sainte-Marie-la-Mauderne premiered at the 800-seat Théâtre Gilles-Vigneault, a straight stage adaptation of the material by playwright Emmanuel Reichenbach. Though it doesn’t have songs, the critically acclaimed production also stars a famous musician: Michel Rivard of the rock band Beau Dommage.
Scott, a screenwriter based in Montreal and originally from New Brunswick whose other movies include the sperm-donor comedy Starbuck (remade as Delivery Man in English), attended the opening nights of his own unexpected creative progeny just days apart in June.
“It’s incredible to be 20 years later and see how this story still touches people, still makes people laugh,” he said in a phone interview with The Globe and Mail.
While La grande séduction and its stage offspring are comedies, the story Scott first spawned centres around a real-world problem that is no laughing matter. If anything, the difficulty of finding a family physician in Canada – especially in remote or rural communities – has got worse in the two decades since the movie first premiered.
As Globe’s health columnist André Picard wrote in July, almost every province and territory has devised some sort of incentive scheme to attract doctors and yet: “While the health system is reeling from chronic personnel shortages exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic – not just doctors, but others including nurses and personal support workers – there is no national human-resources plan.”
In Scott’s movie (directed by Jean-François Pouliot, originally distributed in English under the title Seducing Doctor Lewis), a once-proud fishing Quebec island village called Sainte-Marie-la-Mauderne needs to find a doctor willing to set up shop in town in order for a factory to be built nearby.
Its residents come up with a more unorthodox scheme than student-loan forgiveness or signing bonuses to achieve their goal, however.
Dr. Christopher Lewis is first blackmailed into spending a month in Sainte-Marie-la-Mauderne by a former resident-turned-police officer who pulls him over for speeding and finds him in possession of cocaine. Then, the town’s mayor and other residents launch a charm offensive on the doctor, pretending to have similar interests in cricket and fusion jazz to seduce him into staying. (In the pre-Facebook days of the film, figuring out his likes involved phone tapping rather than surfing social-media profiles.)
As Scott remembers it, he dashed off the first draft of La grande séduction in about a month, after his work on a sitcom was unexpectedly pushed back: “I think it’s the fastest script that I’ve ever written in my life,” he recalled. “There was something very natural in the flow of writing this story.”
The film ended up screening at Cannes and Sundance (where it won the World Cinema Audience Award) and became the highest-grossing Canadian film of 2003. The latter was no small achievement in that particular year – which saw homegrown box-office for Quebec movies explode with the release of films such as Mambo Italiano, starring the recently deceased Paul Sorvino, and Denys Arcand’s Les Invasions barbares (The Barbarian Invasions), the first Canadian movie to win Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.
Charming small-budget comedies about small towns full of eccentrics pulling together in the face of adversity were far from unusual at the time – La grande séduction got lumped in with The Full Monty and Waking Ned Devine by many international reviewers. But the problems regarding finding health care in these towns had not been nearly as universally covered in the world of film.
The wide-spread and yet slightly different everywhere nature of that underlying social issue played a role in Scott’s film being remade three different times for three different markets even before playwrights and composers got interested in it.
The Grand Seduction was the name of the first English-Canadian film remake in 2013, directed by Don McKellar – in which Scott and Michael Dowse relocated the action of the original movie to Newfoundland. A French remake taking place in the Pyrenees called Un village presque parfait followed in 2014, and shortly on the heels of that was an Italian one set in the Lucan Dolomites called Un paese quasi perfetto in 2016.
The new Canadian stage adaptations are all based on the original Québécois incarnation – if more or less true to it.
For Sainte-Marie-la-Mauderne, Reichenbach says he knew he was writing for an audience that was extremely familiar with the film, which has become a kind of annual tradition, broadcast each holiday season on television in Quebec, and so the setting is the same even as the plot has been updated to acknowledge the existence of social media.
Tell Tale Harbour, however, moves the action east, where Brazier says it addresses “very real and current issues within Atlantic Canada” – and has made the doctor British instead of Canadian to make the local community work even harder to make him feel at home.
Tell Tale Harbour continues at the Charlottetown Festival through Sept. 24, then tours to Newfoundland from Sept. 27 to Oct. 15; Sainte-Marie-la-Mauderne continues at Théâtre Gilles-Vigneault until Aug. 13.
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