The Saskatoon StarPhoenix Review - New Albion
Reviewed by: Bill Robertson
Hijinks and human frailty in a ‘room full of thespians’
Near the end of Saskatoon writer Dwayne Brenna’s first novel, New Albion, his principal character and narrator, Emlyn Phillips, reflects, with some rancour, on his life: “As the year draws to a close, I find myself taking stock. Forty-two years old. Almost as old as the current century. And what have I accomplished? Nineteen years as actor, some of that time spent in the rural circuits. Fourteen of those years as stage manager of a minor theatre in the capitol.”
That minor theatre is the New Albion in Whitechapel, a neighbourhood in London characterized by Phillips as populated by prostitutes, drunks, and knife-wielding thieves. In fact, he and some of the theatre family chuckle that these denizens make up a great portion of their audience. The time is 1850 and Phillips recounts the nearly day-to-day activities of a motley group of actors, stage hands, and owner in what purports to be his diary covering the last four months of the year.
In British theatres of the time preparations for the Christmas panto, or pantomime, a family theatrical extravaganza full of songs, jokes, and slapstick skits, should have been well under way. Trouble is, at the New Albion, the resident playwright, Mr. Ned Farquhar Pratt, is rapidly succumbing to his addiction to laudanum, rendering him not only a dodgy bet to write the Christmas panto, but unable, even, to learn lines to his own plays and act them. It is Mr. Phillips’ job, for most of this story, to translate the demands of the theatre’s owner to his staff of actors and playwright in language they can understand. That language, basically, is write something and act it that puts people in seats and makes us some money. But, as Phillips often recounts, “trying to keep everybody as calm as possible in a room full of thespians” is not easy. In fact, it can be downright dangerous.
Brenna, who Saskatoon audiences will remember as actor with 25th Street Theatre and with Dancing Sky Theatre in Meacham, as well as the voice of his creation Eddie Gustafson on CBC Radio, knows the world of theatre. He’s now a drama professor at the U of S and has written plays and brings his copious knowledge, along with much time spent in London, to this dark building, the New Albion, full of has-beens, never-will-be’s, some talent, some innocence, depraved experience, and ruthlessly competing egos. The cliché herding cats would be appropriate, as long as some were bobcats, some feral cats, and some on fire.
Brenna, as is to be expected with a stock comical situation such as the one he sets up, has a lot of fun here. There are actors who get drunk and have to be prompted so many times that even the audience gets in on the act, an owner’s wife who gives life to the expression drama queen, and sexual shenanigans of various kinds. But Brenna knows that not all comedy shows are funny behind the scenes.
Brenna exploits his chosen time and place, 1850 in London, by spreading himself beyond what could have been simply a rousing good laugh in an enclosed garden of misfits—something akin to what Shakespeare sets up in Twelfth Night. He draws his influences from Charles Dickens—indeed, gives him a minor walk-on role—and his attention to the desperate spawn of the Industrial Revolution, to the gaudy melodramas of the age that brought in the working class audiences, and to the sociological foment of the time with its Chartists and their demands for decent conditions for the new working poor.
In a novel that often apes the love and larceny conventions of pat melodrama, mixes them up with Dickens’s concerns for the poor and downtrodden, throws in a few good strained metaphors from a Victorian morality tale, and sets them all abuzz with a stock cast of high and lowbrow actors, Brenna gives his long-suffering narrator Phillips a lot to do in a short time. And all the while poor Phillips, a widower with four daughters, tumbles about in his mind whether working in the often beautiful, often perverse world of the theatre (and here you can read all the arts) is worth while or whether he should just go home to his family’s furniture building business in Manchester. Is this a new vision of England he’s working in, as both the novel’s and theatre’s titles suggest, or just the same old class-ridden drudgery?
His agony is one that was not solved before 1850, nor has been since, which makes Brenna’s first novel not only entertaining, but always topical.
This review originally appeared in The Saskatoon StarPhoenix.