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American aspiration meets British desperation in Shaw Fest’s ‘Our Betters’

NIAGARA-ON-THE-LAKE, Ont. – All the empty glitter and glamour of post-World War I Britain is on display in the Shaw Festival’s keen production of W. Somerset Maugham’s “Our Betters,” which opened in the Royal George Theatre on May 11.

The play, which explores the efforts of newly wealthy Americans to seek ancient British titles and the status that accompanies them, is timed to exploit our culture’s renewed obsession with the roaring ’20s and the surrounding decades. The play, though a bit clunky in its conceit, is positively “Gatsby”-esque in its attempt to uncover the emptiness of the British aristocracy and the equally vapid American climbers who try to invade it.

Director Morris Panych is an old hand with such material, having produced a similarly class-conscious production of J.M. Barrie’s “The Admirable Crichton” on the Festival Theatre stage in 2011.

Its major villain is one Lady Grayston (the excellent Claire Jullien), a walking embodiment of cool-headed American pretense out to maintain her perch atop the newly formed British-American aristocracy at all costs. She is hosting her niece, the young American Bessie Saunders (Julia Course), who must decide whether to follow her aunt’s unscrupulous path to success or return to America with the recently arrived Fleming Harvey (Wade Bogert-O’Brien, achingly earnest), who embodies all the apparently definitive American virtues Lady Grayston lacks.

Maugham also provides any number of delightful caricatures of hybrid American-Britons who have lost themselves and any sense of decency in their pursuit of old money and fame. These include the unrepentant gossip and gadfly Thornton Clay (the wonderfully brash Neil Barclay), the proto-cougar Duchesse De Surennes (Laurie Paton, chewing up just the right amount of scenery) and her indifferent young American boy toy Tony Paxon (the aptly named Charlie Gallant).

In a series of exchanges and half-affairs that vacillate between withering illustrations of the corrupt British class system and the fantasy of incorruptible American rectitude embodied by the one-dimensional Fleming Harvey, Maugham has great deal of fun. We do, too.

Despite its often cutting humor and many memorable characters, Maugham’s play contains a simplistic ideal of American wholesomeness that is so pure as to be almost cartoonish. He makes the earnest young Fleming, and eventually Bessie, into moral flag-carriers for that ideal, which lends the play a preachy quality that Panych and his cast do their best to downplay.

If you can stomach that bit of one-dimensional character development, you’ll be able to draw a great deal from the production – not least because of Charlotte Dean’s stunning costumes, Ken MacDonald’s excellent set and fine lighting by Alan Brodie.

It makes a great deal of sense for the Shaw Festival to produce this play now, as the gains the middle class achieved in the middle of the 20th century are being quickly erased and we are reverting back to the class divisions of old. (In the United States, we have nearly returned to the massively skewed income distribution of 1922.)

There is certainly no shortage of dramatic literature that sets out to critique the lives and habits of the rich, but almost all of that literature – including “The Great Gatsby” and “Downton Abbey” – also puts the rich on a pedestal. That’s the main, unsolvable paradox in plays like this one, and it makes for a compelling and strikingly fresh evening at the theater.