BWW Review: 'MASTER HAROLD' ... AND THE BOYS at the Segal Centre

BWW Review: 'MASTER HAROLD' ... AND THE BOYS at the Segal CentreMaster Harold" ... and the Boys is a difficult play to watch.

The viewing experience is akin to sitting at an uncomfortable dinner party where the hosts make racist, ableist comments and fight bitterly with one another as you sit for 90 minutes, unable to say anything or leave.

Set in South Africa during apartheid, the play follows the micro-interactions between black servants Sam and Willie, and the white son of the family they work for.

Sam has been like a father to this young white boy, Harold, and the action of the piece comes as the boy - now 17 - turns on him, disavows and humiliates him. And it's heartbreaking.

But the Shaw Festival's touring production, presented at the Segal Centre in partnership with the Black Theatre Workshop, leaves a lot to be desired.

An utterly unimaginative staging from Shaw director Philip Akin leaves the three actors trapped in a very limited space as talking heads for 90 minutes (without intermission).

The early tone of the play is heady and intellectual before it takes a 90-degree turn at the 65-minute mark and becomes tragic and fraught.

BWW Review: 'MASTER HAROLD' ... AND THE BOYS at the Segal CentreThe set occupies a small square of the large Segal stage made up to look like a 1950s tearoom, seemingly as an ode to hyper realism, as every prop and brushstroke is painstakingly devised.

The lighting, on the other hand, leans the opposite direction as nothing appears to change onstage for the entire performance until the lights fade down at the very end.

The bright spot came in the form of three very dedicated actors: James Daly (Harold), Allan Louis (Willie) and Andre Sills (Sam).

All three are highly emotive, precision performers who work together to draw out the grim undertones of racism and privilege that dominate the play.

Sills, in particular, has a way of drawing the audience's attention during moments where teenaged Harold spits racist diatribes. He responds to the verbal barbs as if they were violent assaults, making the whole interaction all the more horrific.

Daly should certainly be congratulated on executing a near-flawless South African accent - a notoriously difficult one to master - but I did hear grumblings from audience members at the Segal who found him difficult to understand.

"Master Harold" ... and the Boys is no doubt intended to make audiences uncomfortable, but this production offers little in the way of a balm or glimmer of hope at the end of the non-stop onslaught.

At the end, following a dramatic fight, Harold walks out into the rain and the two servants return to their inexplicable obsession with ballroom dancing - a cultural commentary that no longer bears fruit? A lost-in-translation South African cultural phenomenon? A poor attempt at dark humour: look at these low class characters indulging in a high society leisure activity?

Either way it doesn't land. Even as they put a coin into the proverbial Chekhov's juke box - referenced so many times they have to use it eventually - the swell of music doesn't offer much solace.

Will Harold, Sam and Willie find their way back to friendship after what has passed between them? It doesn't seem that way.

Ultimately, it's a show that feels dated (it was written by Athol Fugard in 1982), lacks closure and feels too conventional in its presentation to offer any sly bits of wisdom for a modern audience.

"Master Harold" ... and the Boys plays at the Segal Centre until Feb. 11.

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From This Author Marilla Steuter-Martin

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