Review: Jitters (Soulpepper)

Jitters, Soulpepper

Jitters is a Love Letter to Theatre, on Stage in Toronto

Jitters is playwright David French’s comic love letter to late-1970s Canadian theatre. As a company struggles towards opening night, Murphy’s Law kicks in: egos collide, wigs fly off, tempers flare and doors slam. The Care and Treatment of Roses was supposed to be their ticket to Broadway, but what if it never opens at all?

This show is right in Soulpepper‘s wheelhouse: a crowd-pleasing, clever, thoroughly Canadian ensemble comedy. And while the first act takes awhile to get going, once it starts rolling it quickly becomes unstoppable, bitchy and tender and hilarious in equal measure.

My guest was especially taken with Sophia Walker’s Susi and Sarah Wilson’s Peggy, two great actors in minor roles who contribute a lot to the show with about ten lines between them. Jordan Pettle also squeezes considerable value out of Nick, the harassed, prissy stage manager.

For me, this show really comes to life in the second act, where French balances layers of absurdity against the fact that actors are workers. Even when the show’s a disaster, putting on a play doesn’t involve pouring personalities into costumes and pushing them on-stage: it involves hard, mundane, nervous work — and a lot of very real skill above and beyond reciting lines. When grizzled veteran Patrick (Geordie Johnson) stitches a costume or gives a pep talk to young buck Tom (Alex Furber), he’s on the clock, and this work is as important as anything else he’ll be doing.

And especially in interactions between Patrick’s Joycean spitfire, the anal playwright (Mike Ross), the peacemaking director (Kevin Bundy) and the temperamental diva (Diane D’Aquila), the essential conflicts and tensions of putting on a show really come to the fore.

Oliver Dennis’ Phil, a fey, cat-owning mamma’s boy, gets most of the laughs — as Oliver Dennis always does — but the character reminded me a little too much of Mr. Humphries: director Ted Dykstra has toned down the gay jokes from the 2010 production, but these still felt a little too much like a 70s throwback.

Cheerfully, so does the design. Patrick Clark’s set is so note-perfect that you practically expect to open a door and find an avocado bathroom with shag carpeting. His costumes, all collars and bellbottoms, are also a real treat. And Creighton Doane’s period sound design, particularly the inter-act jingles, had the audience looking forward to every blackout.

Director Dykstra’s wholly on-board with the nostalgic character of this piece, and to the extent to which playwright French inserted himself: when Mike Ross’ Robert waxes on about how the characters in Roses are all facets of his own personality, we understand exactly what French had in mind. There’s a subtlety here which says something very important about this time, and this place, and this playwright.

And Dykstra also gets one hell of a performance out of Geordie Johnson in particular, embracing both the tenderness and the utter shittiness of this sonovabitch. But this is an ensemble show at heart, and the moments when the whole cast works together — especially in the second and third acts — are when Jitters really shines. A little farce, a little self-parody, and an awful lot of Soulpepper magic: we’ll be seeing this one again and again.

Details

  • Jitters plays through April 15th, 2016 at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, in the Distillery District.
  • Performances are at irregular times: see calendar for details.
  • Ticket prices vary from $65 to $80, with a discount for high school and university students.
  • Tickets can be purchased online, by telephone (416-866-8666), or in-person from the venue box office.
  • Many dates are already sold out: advance purchase is strongly advised.
  • Audience advisory: This production is suitable for all ages, but the subject matter may not be of interest to the youngest people. Recommended for ages 12 and up.

Photograph of (L -> R) Kevin Bundy, Sarah Wilson, Jordan Pettle & Mike Ross by Cylla von Tiedemann.