Wednesday, July 31, 2013

OUR BETTERS is a delightful social commentary at The Shaw

A reviewer once said of OUR BETTERS, a social comedy by W. Somerset Maugham, “OUR BETTERS is probably not one of Maugham’s best plays, but that still says quite a lot.  Maugham on his worst day was bound to be better than the average writer on his good one.”

The play, which is a premiere at Shaw, is being bannered as “perfect for lovers of DOWNTON ABBEY.”  Be aware that isn’t quite as advertised, though both do focus on English lords in financial trouble, who marry rich American women for their fortunes.  While DOWNTON ABBEY takes peeks into the lives of servants and expands into various settings, OUR BETTERS stays in the drawing rooms and mainly places the spotlight on American women.

Maugham, who is credited as being the most profitable of the writers of his time, is the author of such classics as OF HUMAN BONDAGE, THE MOON AND SIX PENCE,  SADIE THOMPSON, and THE RAZOR’S EDGE, his last novel.
OUR BETTERS was first presented in 1917 and mirrored the ideas of the time, including Maugham’s slightly hidden belief that Americans should stay out of Britain and mind their own business.

The play centers on the early 20th century practice of wealthy American women buying their way into desirous British society by marrying aristocratic gentleman who had lost their fortunes, but retained their titles.  The women gained pre-identifiers such as “Lady” and “Princess” in exchange for their money, assumed British accents, and became the envy of the “folks” back home. Most of these women married for convenience rather than love.  Some of the women took lovers on the side, as did their husbands. 

Records indicate that over 100 American heiresses found European aristocratic husbands during that era.  Included in this group was Jennie Jerome, the daughter of a wealthy New York stockbroker, who married Lord Randolph Churchill, the second son of the Duke of Marlborough.  They produced a son named Winston.  Yes, that Winston Churchill.

The play’s title comes from the awareness that though the British upper class may have superior manners, they hardly are “better” than Americans in the matter of morals.  In fact the director in her program notes, indicates that the Lords and Ladies in this play, prove themselves to be nothing more than “hustlers.”

It’s the start of the London season when the play opens at the Mayfair home of Lady Grayston (Pearl), and centers on The Duchess of Surennes (Minnie) and The Princess della Cercola (Flora), and their attempts to get Pearl’s sister, the 22-year old Bessie, to hook one of the Brits, preferably the pleasant enough Lord Bleane.  Bessie’s march to the aisle is thwarted by her life-long friend, American Fleming Harvey, who is in love with Bessie and doesn’t want her selling out to the man with the highest title.  Through a series of delightful scenes, happiness is achieved, by at least Bessie and Fleming.

Director Morris Panych has a nice touch with the farcical elements of the script.  He has a strong cast who play it straight, thus achieving the correct balance that makes the humorous elements work.   

Julia Course creates a sensible Bessie, who finally realizes that the social climbing of her sister and the other Americans is not for her.  Wade Bogert-O’Brien is on target as the love struck American realist. 

Neil Barclay is delightful as the gossiping Thornton Clay.  Laurie Paton overplays the affected drama queen, Minnie, to perfection, milking the lines for all the laughs she can get.  Catherine McGregor as Flora and Claire Jullien as Pearl both etch clear characterizations.

Ben Sanders as Lord Bleane creates a man who, in spite of his desire to trade his title for money, is really a nice chap. 

Ken MacDonald’s set designs are visually breathtaking and era correct.   The third act Victorian stained glass infused set brought extended applause from the audience when it was revealed.  Charlotte Dean must have blown the Shaw budget with all of the gorgeous period costumes.  The sets are bathed with sumptuous lighting by Alan Brodie.

Capsule judgement: OUR BETTERS is a social commentary that will delight those who like to delve into British social classes.  In this case they also get to see snapshots of Americans trying to be Brits, upper class ones at that.

OUR BETTERS runs through October 27 in the Royal George Theatre. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit or call 1-800-511-7429.