LITTLE MERCY'S FIRST MURDER by Morwyn Brebner, music by Jay Turvey and Paul Sportelli, directed by Eda Holmes, with Neil Barclay, Jane Johanson, Melody Johnson, Jeff Lillico, Peter Millard and Tony Nappo. Presented by the Shaw Festival and Tarragon at the Tarragon Extra Space. Previews through Sunday (January 19), opens Tuesday (January 21) and runs to February 23, Tuesday-Saturday 8 pm, matinees Saturday-Sunday (except January 18) 2:30 pm, February 19 at 1:30 pm. $21-$26, Sunday pwyc-$15, previews $16. 416-531-1827.
Unlike many people who work in the business, actor Neil Barclay is a theatreholic. You can't keep him away from productions even when he's on vacation or hiatus.A decade or so ago, he felt he was losing his child's wonder about theatre -- "I was part of the scene, I knew all the people" -- and decided to spend time away from it all in the Shetland Islands.
Barclay never got that far north. He spent a little time in the Orkneys, but what he really remembers are the 23 shows he saw in London.
And now he goes back to Europe almost every year -- he's recently turned his attention to the German theatre scene -- after the Shaw season finishes. On his last visit, he caught 15 shows in 10 days. As a bonus, some Shaw patrons recognized him in a London theatre.
They've reason to remember Barclay. Whether he's centre stage (the Chairman in the musical version of Dickens's The Mystery Of Edwin Drood or the hypnotized husband in the farcical Will Any Gentleman?) or part of the ensemble (a Lost Boy in Peter Pan or a morally corrupt lawyer in Detective Story), the actor creates a character with sharp, sure strokes. Generic acting isn't in his vocabulary.
A regular at the Shaw Festival since 1990, Barclay hasn't performed much in Toronto. Those unfamiliar with his work are in for a treat when they see him in Morwyn Brebner's Little Mercy's First Murder, playing a menacing cop (Barclay describes him as a Javert-type bloodhound) on the trail of the titular ingenue. The noir-style musical, with tunes by Jay Turvey and Paul Sportelli, is co-produced by Shaw and the Tarragon.
Since he prefers not to see the audience when he performs, the actor had a real workout in Drood, in which he was the punning frontman for a company of performers who interacted with the audience as they performed Dickens's Victorian tale. Viewers voted on whodunit during the show, since Dickens didn't finish the novel.
"There were lots of curves in the voting sequence, and lots of enthusiastic audience members who took us at our word to participate.
"I remember one guy at the end of the voting -- by that point I thought I was safe -- who got up and came screaming down the aisle that he knew who the murderer was. "It was you,' he yelled at me. "You killed him with all your bad jokes.'
"He got the biggest laugh of the night."
But Barclay had a quick comeback. As the man sat down, Barclay's Chairman called out, "Ladies and gents, let's give a hand to Mr. Charles Dickens."
Little Mercy's First Murder is also a period piece, set in 40s New York with a pastiche score that has a little rumba, a little klezmer and a little French boulevard chanson.
"The score, wistful and melancholic, must have been a challenge to write, since Morwyn doesn't write banal, moon-June lyrics. Her words, both for songs and book, capture the naturalness, almost the inelegance, of human speech.
"And at the other end of the spectrum, there's a touch of the Beat poets, with weird images that spring up and are totally real for the characters."
For Barclay the rumba number tweaks a memory of playing an incongruous Carmen Miranda figure in an early-90s musical at Shaw. That character was coaxed out of retirement last fall for a tribute evening to departing artistic director Christopher Newton.
"Only out of love for Christopher," Barclay states firmly, "would I put on the fruit hat again." firstname.lastname@example.org profile