Review: The Small Room at the Top of the Stairs (Tarragon)

The Small Room at the Top of the Stairs by critically acclaimed playwright plays at Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre

The beguiling and suspense driven The Small Room at the Top of the Stairs  is Tarragon’s latest mainstage offering from critically acclaimed Canadian writer Carole Fréchette.  Sometimes there is no better date than a night out at the theatre and the nature of this show makes for a great date night.  My date and I marvel as we walk into the theatre.  Staged on a completely bare floor that looks as though it is made of glass, the audience creates an L-shape around the action.

The effect of Astrid Janson’s set and Weyni Mengesha’s direction is one of complete intimacy and I can’t imagine a better staging for a show that is built around suspenseful intensity.

Both the set and Frechétte’s set-up are classic and perfect – it has all the intrigue of a 1950’s Hitchcockian thriller.  A wistful young blond named Grace (Nicole Underhay) enters a whirlwind marriage and moves into a palacial estate with sitting rooms, various gardens, a gorgeous swimming pool and ten guest rooms.

Perhaps an homage to Hitchcock, Grace’s Mother Joyce (Sarah Dodd) freely admits she has named her daughters Anne and Grace presumably so they could have lives that envy princesses.  She hilariously laments what life is like as a “Joyce”, living in a five-room bungalow.  She is thrilled with Grace’s new dashingly handsome and rich husband Henry (Rick Roberts) and encourages Grace not to rock the boat.  That job is left to her outspoken sister Anne (Claire Calnan) who challenges the foundation of a relationship based on so little information and time.  Rounding out the cast is Henry’s longtime Eastern European maid, Jenny (Raquel Duffy).  Every actor is fantastic, really true to both the characters and the genre of the piece .

With a set that’s as open concept as this one, it is the job of the actors and lighting to create the suspense.  My date and I were completely blown away by perhaps the most outstanding element of this entire show, the lighting.  Often underappreciated or even unnoticed, this show deserves the Dora Mavor Moore Award for lighting, hands down.

The show begins right at the moment of intrigue – the narrow hallway that leads to a small door, which leads to the forbidden room at the top of the stairs.  The suspense in the first twenty minutes is so intense that at one particular moment I jumped and screamed – and I wasn’t the only one.  What a testament to what fantastic acting, sound, lighting and a true commitment to genre can do.

With the audience around me so completely enraptured, I had a quick moment of breath to reflect on what a departure this show seemed to be in recent memory for Tarragon.  There was such accessibility to the show – I envisioned every summer stock picking it up.

But I spoke my thoughts too soon.  I’d rather not give anything away but I have to be honest, I don’t really understand what actually happened at the end so I have nothing to actually give away.  Judging by the comment cards posted in the reception following the show, I wasn’t alone.  “Superbly acted, brilliant lighting.  Didn’t get it”.  Yep.  That about sums it up.  My date left the theatre angry.  “You build it up so beautifully and then you give us…..that!?”  (I should add that my date followed that statement with an expletive that I will choose to leave out).

Myself, I was nonplussed as well.  As I left the theatre I kept thinking about all the clues that we were given that added up to, well, nothing.  For me, the first half of this show stays committed to its genre and the effect is the most captivating theatrical experience out there.  The second half of the show will likely turn into the most frustrating.

Yes, life doesn’t always make sense, but the genre of suspense does.  It feels like either the show doesn’t live up to its genre or it decided to switch half way through.  Either way, it seemed like a lot of people were left scratching their heads.  If you didn’t, please let me know.  I left feeling like the show was completely unfinished.

In fact, when the lights came up, I was confused as well because there had been a fog warning but the fog was nowhere to be found.  Maybe it is hiding in the small room at the top of the stairs.


The Small Room at the Top of the Stairs is playing at Tarragon Theatre (30 Bridgman Ave) until April 8, 2012.
– Shows run Tuesday to Friday at 8pm, Saturday at 2:30pm and 8pm, Sunday at 2:30pm
– Tickets range from $21 to $51
– Tickets are available b calling 416-531-1827 or online

Photograph by Cylla von Tiedemann








2 thoughts on “Review: The Small Room at the Top of the Stairs (Tarragon)”

  1. My companion and I attended on Sat. 10 March. She enjoyed it thoroughly, and is better at filling in the blanks than I am. My reaction was closer to your own i.e. there was the potential for something truly special, but in the end it was not delivered. We exited separately and both of us overheard conversations along the lines of those comment cards. The performances are great, especially Nicole Underhay as Grace, and Raquel Duffy as the creepy/sexy maid Jenny. Note to anyone planning to attend : there are huge spoilers in the playwright’s notes in the handout brochure. Overall : recommended.

  2. I just saw the play last night (April 5). I liked so much about it–great set, good actors, lots of playing with our emotions–but I also didn’t quite “get” the ending. It’s a rare complaint that there are too many ideas/possibilities–but, it’s true, and I agree with you that that’s a cheat. Still, wasn’t sorry I went.

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