What do you get when three Englishmen and a stuffed dog walk onto a boat? You get Three Men in a Boat. While I recognize that this might sound reductive, I can assure you that this show’s very simplicity constitutes its charm.
Mark Brownell’s adaptation of Jerome K. Jerome’s Victorian satire Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog), is a cheeky and clever enlivening of an old boy’s trip from Jerome’s own life. The novel/travelogue, published in 1889, when repurposed for the stage at the Guild Festival Theatre in Scarborough, thrives as a masterful comedy of errors. This production is rife with as much literary wittiness as it is with pure silliness.
It only takes skimming a few pages of Jerome’s original work to see how eloquently Brownell has adopted the voice of the narrator Jay (Azeem Nathoo) into natural-sounding, yet lyrically elevated and historically apt dialogue. Brownell seems to have retained much of the original text, including notably a fourth-wall breaking variation of Jerome’s preface about the depth of the work, as well as a number of the text’s first-rate insults (“get up you fat-headed chunk!”).
The plot is straightforward and so it relies on its characters to make it larger than life. Jay and his two bachelor buddies George (Suchiththa Wickremesooriya) and Harris (Jack Copland), begin the play overwhelmed with a number of alphabetized medical ailments, from Ague to Gout, which they abandon with the decision to take a vacation in such “jolly boating weather.” In the 75 minutes of the show, the men and their dog Montmorency (played by stuffed animal and “classical canine performer” Tobias Bamford-Harrington), whose only job is to “get in the way and be sworn at,” travel along the River Thames from Kingston to Oxford, with a number of stops en route.
Sue Miner’s direction and Ina Kerklaan’s particularly eye-catching design work together to map out a lengthy journey with only a stage, three carpets, a stool, and a chair. Kerklaan’s use of bright, saturated colour in the costuming is effective and striking. Each man jaunts about in a unique suit that becomes a part of his identifiable personality. The commitment to colour-coding, even down to Harris’s swimwear, cements a cartoonishness to the characters that Miner matches with her choreographic staging.
The three men, light on their feet, are often jumping around or dancing to their own songs, which though sometimes barbershop-like, mimic those of Victorian music halls. There is some allusion to such culture, the best of course being Harris’s insistence on performing a comic song for the group… or perhaps the surprise performance by Herr Slossenn Boschen of Germany.
The play’s most effective comedy occurs once the story picks up pace and the boating trip sets off. While the narrative’s beginnings are slow and a bit tiresome, by the time the men reach their various rest stops, the grounds for situational comedy are well-established and harnessed. A highlight of many is the men’s attempt to navigate their way through the Hampton Court Maze, in cartoonish unison as a result of Miner’s hilarious direction, and some standout clownishness from Harris.
While each character is technically distinct, on the night I attended it often felt as though Harris was the most established personality in the production. Even Jay, in all of his poetical poshness, takes time to grow on the audience as a complete character, and there was some room for George to be further included in the story. That said, Nathoo, Wickremesooriya, and Copland should be commended for pulling off such a strong and cohesive ensemble relationship. With this in mind, I can only see Three Men in a Boat getting better and even funnier throughout its run.
To its core, Three Men in a Boat does not pretend to be something more profound than it is, just as they forewarn you. Its reliance on traditional storytelling and goofy punchlines instead makes it a comfortable fit for many audiences and has a certain lightness that makes outdoor theatre all the more enjoyable. I was so quickly taken with the beautiful atmosphere of the Guild Festival’s amphitheatre, that I might even daresay it has won my heart as an unmatched environment for outdoor theatre in the GTA, particularly when being taken firsthand on a journey along the Thames.
Three Men in a Boat runs at the Guild Festival Theatre until August 13. Tickets are available here.
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