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Easy Virtue

After a lengthy absence, festival favorite Goldie Semple has made a grand entrance back onto the Shaw's main stage as Noel Coward's feisty heroine Larita, a divorcee who will not feel shame and engages in some delicious verbal battles with her stuffy, class-conscious in-laws. Semple's vehicle is the seldom-performed 1925 "Easy Virtue" and while it's not nearly as good as "Private Lives" or "Hay Fever," it does deliver one of Coward's most satisfying characters.

After a lengthy absence, festival favorite Goldie Semple has made a grand entrance back onto the Shaw’s main stage as Noel Coward’s feisty heroine Larita, a divorcee who will not feel shame and engages in some delicious verbal battles with her stuffy, class-conscious in-laws. Semple’s vehicle is the seldom-performed 1925 “Easy Virtue” and while it’s not nearly as good as “Private Lives” or “Hay Fever,” it does deliver one of Coward’s most satisfying characters.

Patience is a virtue here, and one not easily achieved; it isn’t until the middle act that Larita mows down the supercilious Whittakers with a flourish and style that not only makes her performance memorable, but also gives the play a contemporary sheen as the world celebrates Coward’s 100th birthday.

When the 26-year-old wrote “Easy Virtue” he was not yet skilled enough to camouflage his structural seams, so lengthy character introductions and exposition weigh down the first act. But we also know from the outset that the good stuff is coming, and that the hideous Whittaker women who take up so much space at the top of the play are there to be flattened.

And the wait pays off. Semple, as Larita, is a mix of moll and doll, a worldly-wise creature who has been raked over for her independence and un-British insistence on the truth, yet still naive enough to fall for the callow Whittaker boy (a bland character rendered too blandly by Kevin Bundy). She takes satisfaction, but no real pleasure, in rattling the complacency of the family she has married into.

Semple brings her classical training to bear on the role (she has also spent many seasons at Stratford), layering it with enormous complexity and giving Coward’s withering denunciation of the moneyed country class a depth of feeling that cuts through the prevailing pretty repartee to the play’s rebellious underbelly.

Director Christopher Newton has kept a sharp eye out for the play’s flaws, speeding up the pace and encouraging his actors to develop quirky edges to their characters: Both of the hideous Whittaker sisters win laughs, the older Marion (Kelli Fox — sister to Michael J.) with a snort that expresses indignation and contempt, the younger Hilda (Fiona Byrne) with a skipping and prancing step that verges on hysteria. David Schurmann as the long-suffering father conveys his dismay via a wry, laconic delivery that blends well with a draconian and acerbic Patricia Hamilton as his wife. There is also beautifully modulated work from Glynis Ranney as Sarah and Todd Waite as her gangly, ever hopeful suitor.

The result is that “Easy Virtue” cleverly gives an impression of being a much better play than it actually is.

Easy Virtue

Comedy Revival; Shaw Festival; 861 Seats; C$ 70 ($ 47) Top

  • Production: NIAGARA-ON-THE-LAKE, Ontario A Shaw Festival presentation of a play in two acts by Noel Coward. Directed by Christopher Newton. Sets and costumes, William Schmuck.
  • Crew: Lighting, Alan Brodie. Opened, reviewed July 9, 1999. Running time: 2 HOURS, 25 MIN.
  • Cast: Mrs. Whittaker ..... Patricia Hamilton Marion ..... Kelli Fox Colonel Whittaker ..... David Schurmann Hilda ..... Fiona Byrne Furber ..... Richard Farrell John Whittaker ..... Kevin Bundy Larita ..... Goldie Semple Sarah Hurst ..... Glynis Ranney Charles Burleigh ..... Todd Waite Philip Borden ..... Brian Elliott Mr. Harris ..... Patrick. R. Brown Hugh Petworth ..... Larry Herbert Nina Vansittart ..... Patty Jamieson Bobby Coleman ..... Randy Ganne Letty Austin ..... Risa Waldman Algy Prynne ..... Alistair James Harlond Lucy Coleman ..... Karen Wood Henry Furley ..... Allan Craik Mrs. Hurst ..... Nora McLellan Mrs. Phillips ..... Gabrielle Jones Mary Banfield ..... Robin Hutton
  • Music By: