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BWW Review: SERVING ELIZABETH at the Stratford Festival Offers a Fresh Take on a Familiar Story and Proves an Important Point in the Process

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Director Kimberley Rampersad and a fine company bring Marcia Johnson's delightful and important story to life

BWW Review: SERVING ELIZABETH at the Stratford Festival Offers a Fresh Take on a Familiar Story and Proves an Important Point in the Process

During the first year and a half of this "great pause" while theatre was more or less shut down and people were encouraged to stay home, many folks turned to TV and streaming services for their entertainment. Many caught up on historical dramas like 'The Crown.' Of course, that show was popular prior to the pandemic, but the opportunity to binge watch has led many more viewers to it. Something fans of 'The Crown' may notice is how even though liberties are taken to create and breathe life into fictional characters surrounding the Queen, most of those characters are white - even in an episode set in Kenya and filmed in South Africa. Playwright Marcia Johnson took issue with this, and out of her disappointment in that series, comes a creative and captivating story that explores not only HRH Princess Elizabeth's trip to Kenya from the perspective of the locals who served her, but also a modern day story set behind the scenes of a show like 'The Crown' from the perspective of a Kenyan-born intern. Directed by Kimberley Rampersad, this exciting new play is fresh, funny, thought-provoking, and full of unexpected surprises.

Set in Kenya in 1952 and in London in 2015, two stories unfold throughout the course of this play. One is that of Mercy and Faith, a mother and daughter who own a restaurant in Kenya and are tasked with serving Princess Elizabeth during her royal visit; and the other is that of Tia, a Kenyan-born Canadian working as an intern on a British TV drama about Queen Elizabeth. The small cast is kept busy as everyone doubles up on roles. Making their Stratford debuts, Virgilia Griffith portrays both Faith and Tia, and Arlene Duncan portrays Mercy and Patricia, one of the producers of the TV series. Both are excellent. Their mother-daughter dynamic is effortless and funny as Faith tries to convince her mother to be a chef to Princess Elizabeth despite her history protesting decisions made by the English Monarchy. Griffith is also brilliant as she portrays Tia as she grapples with her frustration over a lack of diversity and representation in the scripts for the TV show. As we watch her frustration build to the point where she eventually decides that she needs to say something, it becomes clear that we are in for a memorable scene.

Stratford veteran Sean Arbuckle portrays Talbot - a man sent by the royal family to plan for the visit to Kenya, and Maurice, the writer of the TV series. Arbuckle is the source of many laughs in the show, but really shines in the aforementioned more tense moment when Tia confronts Maurice about his script for the episode set in Kenya.

Sara Topham is first introduced as Robin, one of Tia's bosses on the TV show. She later portrays HRH Princess Elizabeth. While many of the actors have to switch accents entirely, Topham is tasked with switching dialects and with altering the tone of her voice between her two roles. These switches are sometimes very quick as the play frequently shifts between timelines. This is quite the feat for everyone involved, but Topham's mastery of this more subtle voice change is particularly impressive.

Rounding out the cast (with the exception of course of Roy Lewis' delightful voice cameo as a radio announcer) is Cameron Grant who plays Montague, Talbot's driver, and Steven, an actor auditioning for a role in the 2015 TV series. Both men are kind-hearted, caring, and supportive, and Grant is charming in both roles.

This play allows for moments and interactions that will have fans of the British royals grinning with delight and will allow audiences to wonder how many real untold stories from this time are just as interesting. The pacing is very good and the blend of humour with an important message and story is done to perfection. The stage at the Tom Patterson Theatre Canopy is used effectively and despite this being a complicated set of stories to tell, the cast and crew are very good at smoothly transitioning from one scene to the next in a way that is never confusing and always captivating.

I almost don't want to say too much more about this story because most audiences will be unfamiliar with this new play and I strongly feel that the less you know going in, the more enjoyable it will be. Luckily, audiences still have a few more weeks to get their tickets and see it!

SERVING ELIZABETH continues on stage at the Tom Patterson Canopy until September 26th.

Photo Credit: David Hou


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