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The Millionairess: A poverty of craft in Shaw’s play about wealth

Steven Sutcliffe as Adrian Blenderbland, Nicole Underhay as Epifania Ognisanti di Parerga and Robin Evan Willis as Patricia (Polly) Smith in The Millionairess.

Emily Cooper

1.5 out of 4 stars

The Millionairess
Written by
Bernard Shaw
Directed by
Blair Williams
Nicole Underhay, Kevin Bundy, Martin Happer, Robin Evan Willis, Steven Sutcliffe
The Shaw Festival
The Court House Theatre
Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.
Runs Until
Saturday, October 06, 2012

Epifania Ognisanti di Parerga has looks, money and, best of all, an uncanny knack for making even more money. Still, she overestimates her own worth. "I am the most interesting woman in England," she declares early on in Bernard Shaw's 1936 play, The Millionairess.

Alas, there are certain things money can't buy, and the only interest Epifania really can claim is that which pours into her bank accounts on a daily basis; she wouldn't make it on Dragons' Den, that's for sure.

Shaw's play about this creature, meanwhile, is downright tedious. Even the usually charismatic Nicole Underhay in the title role can't make this chattery cardboard comedy come to life.

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The Millionairess opens in the offices of solicitor Julius Sagamore, a convivial ukulele player in Kevin Bundy's charming performance. Epifania has dropped by to make out her will before committing suicide, the first of many red herrings.

As it happens, Sagamore is solicitor to every other character of importance in the Epifania's life and, soon enough, her boxer husband Alastair Fitzfassenden (Martin Happer) and his poor, but infinitely more likeable young mistress Polly (Robin Evan Willis) show up. Shortly thereafter, Steven Sutcliffe makes a memorable entrance as Epifania's cocky but cash-challenged "Sunday husband," Adrian Blenderbland.

This quartet of lovers then ramble on about their problems for a good long while as the audience tries to figure out when, if ever, a plot is going to walk in the door looking to consult a solicitor.

One sort of appears, eventually: Epifania, newly separated from her husband, is going to have trouble finding a new one. Her late father left a set of instructions for future matches, and any man who wants to marry her must first turn £150 into 50,000 within six months.

Epifania is pushy and trained in the art of judo, but her one-per-center problems are difficult to care about. Under the direction of Blair Williams, Underhay goes for style over substance, strutting about, flipping a stole back and forth over her shoulder.

We only get to see her money-making skills in action for a brief scene in the second act – and Underhay suddenly shines as she unleashes her inner Kevin O'Leary.

If you didn't know Shaw was a socialist, you certainly wouldn't guess it here. Epifania delivers a rather persuasive argument against minimum wage, while the play seems to contain a recurring theme that poor people aren't rich largely because they're too scared to be.

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Enjoyably contrarian moments aside, however, The Millionairesss is simply a lousy piece of playwrighting from a craft point of view – sloppy and repetitive. Shaw, writing in his dotage, can't even bother to come up with plausible reasons for his characters converging.

Williams squeezes a few good laughs out of the script, particularly during a physical fight between Epifania and Blenderbland, but he doesn't dig below the surface. He has his actors skip the foreign accents and do the play in Canadian ones, a refreshing choice in theory, but one that only serves to underline the blandness of this production in practice.

But the main culprit here is Bernard Shaw.

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