The Colony of Unrequited Dreams

Warning: This review may contain spoilers.

Nothing Unrequited Here – Love for a “Rock”-Solid Production

With all due respects to Mr. Telford—who did an admirable job back in the day in my gifted history program—if only all Canadian history was this dynamic and entertaining, we’d have a nation that truly appreciates the richness, diversity, and—yes—intrigue of our national past. Fortunately, we have productions like Artistic Fraud’s The Colony of Unrequited Dreams to bring our past—both real and imagined—to vivid and entertaining life.

Ostensibly, the play is the story of Joseph Smallwood, the self-proclaimed Last Father of Confederation who is best remembered as the person who spearheaded the drive to bring Newfoundland into Canadian confederation in 1949. Colony is not strictly a by-the-book recounting of Smallwood’s life—well, not by the history books that is. Colony is based upon Wayne Johnston’s fictionalized biography of Smallwood, played admirably by Colin Furlong, and benefits from some of the creative license taken in that representation, including the creation of a fictional foil, Carmen Grant’s Sheilagh Fielding, who helps to establish key scenes and drive the narrative.

The play is broken up into three acts: the first covering the period from 1927 through 1932, where the Newfoundland government falls and Smallwood is working under its Prime Minister Sir Richard Squires; the second covers the period of return to British rule between 1933 and 1941, where Smallwood develops his voice through his role as The Barrelman, the host of a radio program that celebrates the uniqueness of Newfoundland culture; and, finally, the third act covers the negotiation of Newfoundland into Canadian Confederation, the referendum efforts, and, ultimately, Smallwood’s success.

There is little not to like in this production. The pacing is spot on—three tight 45-minute acts, broken up by two intermissions; the characterization is well realized; and the accents, while evoking that unique Newfoundland brogue, aren’t so dense as to make comprehension a challenge.

There are no weak points in the cast. Each and every actor embraces his or her role and helps to naturally drive the plot: from Steve O’Connell’s portrayal of Joseph’s alcoholic father to Brian Marler’s sycophantic Daniel Prowse, each character is fully formed and adds motivation to the production. There are no minor characters. Even the Broom child (in a role shared by Kira Shuit, whom we saw opening night, and Blake Carey) has a purpose to furthering the plot—a physical representation of Smallwood’s disgust for the inequity of society that’s hearkened back to in the third act when Smallwood shows his acquiescence to the reality by indulging in what he once condemned.

But it would be criminal to not recognize Keiley’s direction in this production. Her clever use of transitions, movement, and blocking alone are worth the price of admission. One scene, which sees Smallwood and Fielding sending missives over print and radio respectively, sees the actors physically circling the stage in ever-decreasing concentric circles until they meet—face to face, desk to desk—in the centre of the stage for the final confrontation. We are moved from office to hospital to home, and from St. John’s to Ottawa, with grace and dexterity in a way that never detracts from the production. It’s a marvel to behold and is a testament to the stage choreography and the talent of the actors who have embraced it.

Boyle’s musical accompaniment and all the sound cues were all incredibly integrated into the production to add layers. Moments such as when Smallwood’s radio show is simultaneously represented as being live on stage and “broadcast” hundreds of kilometres away on a vintage radio, were deftly handled and showed expert sense of flow and pacing.

The story itself is entertaining. We are presented with themes of personal motivation, the desire for a legacy, and the question of how personal gain integrates with socialist ideals. We see Smallwood progress from a poor idealistic young man, embracing socialism with all his heart, to one who embraces power and holds fast to the idea that many people don’t want to participate in their own freedom but prefer to be led. These themes, presented in the first act by the incorrigibly corrupt Sir Richard Squires (played by Jody Richardson), are reflected in the third act, as Smallwood’s confidence—and, some might say, arrogance—grows commensurate to his role in his country’s future.

The Colony of Unrequited Dreams is a story of passion versus principle, pride versus pragmatism, and personal idealism versus personal goals all framed by the backdrop of 20 years of Newfoundland’s history.

You don’t need to be a Canadian history buff to enjoy Colony, but it’s safe to say that you’ll leave the theatre with a new appreciation for a key part of our national history. It’s a testament to the talent on the stage and behind the scenes that makes Colony a story that transcends time and place.