This London Life: An Idea Searching Desperately for a Story
Anyone who has lived in the Forest City of London, Ontario has noticed that there’s a certain geographical nomenclature that this city has embraced. From the river that runs through it, to key roads, buildings, and landmarks, we’ve likely made a note of it, passed it off as an amusing observation, and moved on with our lives.
This London Life is what happens when you try to stretch that amusing observation over two hours. It relies on a superficial “joke” and repeats it ad nauseam. And even though that particular horse was well dead, buried, and cremated by the end of the first act, it’s given a few more floggings for good measure after the intermission.
The biggest problem is its superficiality. Like a band or hack stand-up comedian who comes to town, does a quick Google search of London, and crafts a couple of throwaway “local” statements to get a cheap pop from its crowd, this production’s humour has all the depth of a Wikipedia entry.
For a locally commissioned show that’s supposed to be about our locale, it’s remarkably shallow and, in some cases, off the mark. A joke about Covent Garden Market being overrun by electric scooters, for example, is simply bizarre. Sure, Cherryhill Mall, we’ll give that joke to you, but no one who has spent any amount of time in the market would say that’s a relatable reference.
Ultimately, This London Life is an intriguing aside that’s desperately searching for a larger story.
What’s frustrating is that there’s a good foundation for a potentially quality production. The set is incredible. A perspective-skewing household exterior dominates the stage, with two interior set pieces – a bedroom and a dining area – at the fore. They’re impressive to look at and are credits to the craftspeople who put it together. But even they prove to be problematic at times – there are scenes where characters go from one room, to the “exterior”, to another room, with no sense of continuity.
There’s potential for this to be an effective farce, but the timing is never precise enough to effectively convey the absurdity, and the dialogue is too ham-fisted to live up to the demands that a proper farce places on its cast (and the less said about the promotional comparisons to Modern Family and Seinfeld, the better, I believe).
The type of mistaken-identity/wrong-place-wrong-time comedy that This London Life aspires to be demands that the audience suspends its disbelief. That’s fine – but the characters and behaviours are beyond absurd. The audience is not asked to only suspend its disbelief – we essentially have to expel it completely to accept that any character can be this oblivious or stupid (or daft, as they would say in the other London).
The actors are all solid, but the characters are all woefully one-dimensional. Young Ryan Shaw is tasked with a demanding role serving as the de facto narrator of the play. His character is, I’ll be generous, precocious. A know-it-all, busybody, with a Sherlock Holmes obsession, you’re either going to love his character or find it off-putting. That said, Shaw is excellent at embracing the role and helps to move the story along. Allister MacDonald is strong in his role of Jimmy, though his accent delves into Don Cheadle/Oceans series territory at times. And Wendy Thatcher’s Nan is the foundation of this play and does an admirable job with what she has to work with. The other characters, including the incredible Rebecca Northan and Braeden Soltys, are underused. Jimenez-Hicks’ Rae-Ann does develop beyond her stereotypical disaffected youth – constantly singing about how London is awful and wants to leave – perhaps serving as an audience proxy.
This play was commissioned through the COMPASS program, which was intended to write locally-relevant stories that would debut at The Grand. Unfortunately, this compass production was off the mark, and instead of celebrating the spirit of World Curious, London Proud to which The Grand aspires, it was melancholy in its approach to The Forest City at best – but dismissive or even condescending towards “our” London at worst.
The story, as it exists, is just a thin series of concepts, loosely woven together to support the overall premise of the play – did you know there were two Londons? And they have similar names? Instead, we’re left with a two-hour exploration of an idea that, at times, has its moments: the best gag was one of the most subtle — with Nan holding a pair of gardening shears and Jimmy misinterpreting their intended use — but subtlety is not this play’s preferred method of humour.
For a story about London, it does very little to explore the London beyond what you can see on a map. The humour is shallow and obvious, but some people – and many at the opening night – enjoy that. Others will find it repetitive and lackluster. For others, it may just be hard to be London Proud of a play about “nowhere” like This London Life.