I spy with my little eye: Our Man In Havana launches the Varscona Theatre Ensemble

Ian Leung, Mark Meer, Mathew Hulshof in Our Man In Havana, Bright Young Things, Varscona Theatre Ensemble. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux Photography 2017

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

In the comical spy thriller that opens Thursday on the Varscona stage, you’ll see two worlds that (to my knowledge) rarely meet actually collide: the world of espionage and the world of vacuum cleaner sales.

In Graham Greene’s satirical 1958 novel Our Man in Havana  and in the 2007 Clive Francis stage adaptation that Bright Young Things take in hand — this unusual career overlap happens in the very English person of Mr. James Wormold (Ian Leung).

In the Batista Havana of the 1950s, the recruitment of a clueless cash-strapped vacuum cleaner retailer by the British secret service leads to an escalating series of inventions on the part of the former: fabricated contacts, expense tallies, bogus reports on military installations with eerie and alarming resemblances to … giant Hoovers. And MI6 eats it up. 

And then Mr. Wormold’s made-up stories start coming true.

This zany comic offering from Bright Young Things, a company which mines the rich vein of elite mid-20th century writing (Rattigan, Sartre, Coward are in their archive), launches a new venture whereby a trio of Edmonton’s leading indie theatres have joined forces to produce a season of shows. “Three artistically autonomous but esthetically complementary companies under one umbrella!” as Bright Young Things artistic director Belinda Cornish describes her company’s new collaboration with Plain Jane Theatre and Atlas Theatre.

“We share a spirit,” Cornish says. “We share an audience. We share a theatre, the Varscona.”  And they also share a subscription that includes the Plain Janes’ Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown (February 15 to 24) and Atlas’s Going To St. Ives (April 5 to 14).

For Bright Young Things the recruitment of Greene’s espionage novel — which became a 1959 movie starring Alec Guinness (with Noel Coward as the MI6 operative who signs him up) — as a stage play presents them a challenge for high-speed stage traffic, quick costume changes, wig transfer. Especially since there are but four actors.

Cornish, who’s in the cast of Kate Ryan’s production, reports that “one actor plays Mr. Wormold exclusively, and three actors (Cornish, Mathew Hulshof, Mark Meer) play the other 31, without any particular gender bias.”

Mathew Hulshof, Belinda Cornish, Ian Leung in Our Man In Havana, Bright Young Things. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux Photography 2017

“It’s impossible! It’s crazy!” Cornish declares happily of “the terrific yarn” the Bright Young Things have chosen for their entry into the season proper. Actors change hats, jackets, feather boas, wigs on the fly — and accents. In a couple of scenes, it’s a classic joke set-up, she laughs: “an Englishman, a German, an Irishman walk into a bar. A Cuban joins them….”

In logistics, speed, and general tone, Our Man In Havana reminds Cornish of The 39 Steps, the larky four-actor stage adaptation of the John Buchan spy novel and the Hitchcock movie. “It’s the sense of three or four people who’s come together to tell the story, grabbing what they can to make it happen….” 

Of all the characters Cornish plays, a gallery that includes Milly (Mr. Wormold’s expensive, spoiled teenage daughter) and Beatrice (the secretary MI6 insists on sending him from London), her favourite, she says, is Miss Jenkinson. She’s the tart-tongued head of the secretarial forces at MI6 HQ. “I’m basing her on Prunella Scales,” laughs Cornish. “She’s sort of Sybil Fawlty….”

Mark Meer in Our Man In Havana, Bright Young Things. Photo by Ryan Parker.

As for the chameleon comedy star Meer, whose career divides itself rather impressively between screen appearances, radio, video game incarnations, voice-overs, improv and sketch comedy, encyclopedic comic book reference AND the stage, he plays a multitude of characters. Everyone from the head of MI6 to the Queen of England. His favourite? Captain Segura, the head of the Cuban police, aka The Red Vulture, he replies without hesitation.

“Renowned for his skill in torture and mutilation,” says Meer with a certain macabre glee. “Always fun to play a character who has a wallet made of human skin.”

Meer, who has a cult following for his voice work as Commander Shepard in BioWare’s Mass Effect trilogy. seems to be attracted to off-centre swashbucklers and out-and-out blackguards over romantic leads. Captain Segura is the most recent in a long and distinguished line of villains Meer has been drawn to play.

As a leading member of the Die-Nasty company of improvising soap-sters, he has exercised the villain option frequently. Who can forget his evil usurper à la Richard III in the medieval season, for example? Or the thoroughly despicable Douche of Venice in the Renaissance year? Or this year’s smarmy Dr. Rex Roquefort, who runs a chain of clinics offering pro bono plastic surgery to the homeless?

Along with Mass Effect Andromeda, his year has included The Long Dark, a Canadian video game in which he plays the bush pilot protagonist. The  fourth season of the APTN sketch comedy season Caution: May Contain Nuts — Meer started his association as “a writing consultant on the nerdy stuff” and his presence grew—   hits the small screen in January.

But for all that, Meer’s year has included unusually ample live theatre content. He was in back-to-back Teatro La Quindicina productions, first as the title character, a life-sized automaton, in a revival of Stewart Lemoine’s Salon of the Talking Turk. Then, in a whirl of high-speed comic virtuosity he played eight roles at least in Going, Going, Gone!, a new screwball comedy by Jana O’Connor.

And now, the theatrical multi-tasker finds himself rushing around on and off-stage in a farcically tangled espionage thriller/ comedy that, as Cornish puts it, “tells its story and winks. But not too much.” The premise, curiously, has an echo of Meer’s Teatro debut in 2002. In a Lemoine screwball called Vidalia (after the onion), Meer played an entirely innocent suit salesman reluctantly drawn into an intricate corporate espionage intrigue.  

As for Our Man In Havana, its riotous progress through Havana and across the Atlantic involves scamming, lying, dim-bulb gullibility, and shameless cover-ups on the part of our venerable institutions, Meer says wryly “I wouldn’t say it isn’t topical.” Reality has seen to that. Cornish, amused, sighs her assent.

Pretending to discover weapons of mass destruction? Fake news? Butt-covering and face- saving? Who’s ever heard of such a thing?


Our Man In Havana

Theatre: Bright Young Things, part of Varscona Theatre Ensemble

Adapted by: Clive Francis from the Graham Greene novel

Directed by: Kate Ryan

Starring: Ian Leung, Mathew Hulshof, Mark Meer, Belinda Cornish

Where: Varscona Theatre, 10329 83 Ave.

Running: through Dec. 2

Tickets: varsconatheatre.com

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