Honest to God, there’s a romantic comedy on at Tarragon Theatre right now. These are such rare sights on Toronto’s moody, broody stages that I’m a little in shock.
Midsummer (a play with songs) begins with Helena (Carly Street) and Bob (Brandon McGibbon) coming on stage with concert trunks and guitar cases as if they’ve arrived to play a gig, rather than put on a play.
They’re here to tell us the story about how a lawyer also named Helena met a small-time criminal also named Bob in an Edinburgh pub – and ended up spending a lost weekend together. One suspects from the get-go that it will be more of a found weekend, mind you.
It begins with a bottle of wine and a drunken sexual encounter that is staged with a hilariously humiliating accuracy by director Tamara Bernier Evans – and then Helena and Bob actually get to know each other after a midday wedding and trip to the bank with a Tesco bag full of crooked cash don’t go according to plan.
Every so often, Helena and Bob pause the plot to sing a short tune with idiosyncratic lyrics composed by Gordon McIntyre, from the Scottish indie band Ballboy, that, no, I hadn’t heard of either before this.
Love Will Break Your Heart is perhaps a little too similar to a great Neil Young song to do anything but pale in comparison, but I did enjoy the spirit of the one that begins, “If my hangover was a country, it would be Belgium.” (Sic, sick, etc.)
Both Street (Company, Venus in Fur) and McGibbon (Once, An Enemy of the People) are actors who have distinguished themselves in both stage comedies and musical theatre – so they’re the ideal casting for this kind of fare. Street takes more risks with the jokes and gets more laughs with her enjoyably off-kilter performance, but McGibbon navigates the play’s sudden shifts toward sentimentality most adeptly.
If you asked me to name a Scottish playwright, David Greig – currently represented on Broadway with the musical of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – would be the first one to come to my mind, even though it always takes me a couple of attempts to spell his name with the vowels in the right order.
This is likely because Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre has brought a couple of Greig’s plays to Toronto over the years (Outlying Islands, Damascus), but also because he is a very Scottish Scottish playwright. Midsummer certainly revels in its sense of place, naming the streets, bars and car parks of Edinburgh as its characters roam through the rain and the fog, almost drawing us a map of the city.
There’s a municipal specificity to the writing here that still seems to be feared by many playwrights who premiere plays in Toronto; for some reason, our stage scribes largely leave the mythologization of the city to Drake.
While Midsummer – which shares a time of year and a character name with A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but otherwise shakes no spears – may be Greig’s most-produced play, it’s also the slightest offering of his I’ve seen.
A lot of its plot elements and character traits seem pulled out of the obvious bag – including the “secret Helena can no longer hide from even herself,” a repeated line that never failed to make me cringe.
Greig and McIntyre’s regurgitated observations about growing up in middle age (the characters are 35, which is apparently middle age in Scotland) would be easier to stomach if the writing wasn’t trying to sell itself as edgier or more original than it is.
Both Helena and Bob begin sentences with “… if this were a Hollywood movie” or “if this was a romantic comedy” that suggest neither of them has been to the cinema in a good long while and seen a popcorn flick about a feckless man in his 30s or a woman of a similar age who likes her drink and is always a bridesmaid. Promiscuity and puking seems the common currency of Hollywood comedies these days – was that not the case when the play premiered in 2008?
Indeed, I would think the appeal of Midsummer (a play with songs) would be to watch a familiar story play itself out in a theatrical way. Bernier Evans’s production is plentifully playful – with McGibbon and Street knocking on the side door during the preshow announcement, before lugging in the boxes that contain all the props and set for the show that will eventually litter the entire stage.
Midsummer didn’t quite pull on my heartstrings the way it seemed to be attempting to do, however – and I can’t quite put my finger on why. It’s an odd thing – Tarragon Theatre has a longer rehearsal process than most of the theatres in town, but I witness actors flubbing their lines more on opening night there than anywhere else in Toronto. I usually don’t remark on it, but do wonder in this case if the production might simply need a few more days in the oven to pop out with an extra sprinkling of stars.
Midsummer (a play with songs) continues to May 28 (tarragontheatre.com).Report Typo/Error