Of all the genres of theatre I know, musicals are typically the most controversial – you love ’em or hate ’em. But, A Man of No Importance is a refreshing musical for those who might be off-put by musicals where the conflict is mostly frivolous and easily resolved and there’s more song than dialogue.
Playing at Walterdale Theatre June 2 – 12, A Man of No Importance takes place in 1964 in Dublin, Ireland, and mainly focuses around Alfie Bryne (played by Morgan Smith) – bus conductor by day, artistic director of an amateur theatre group by night. As we get to know Alfie through his readings on his bus route, meals with his sister, and attempts to stage Oscar Wilde’s Salome at the local church, Alfie also gets to know himself a bit more – revealing to the audience and himself that he’s attracted to his co-worker, Robbie (played by Andrew Boyd). After an imagined Oscar Wilde (Philip Zyp) gives Alfie the advice that the best way to eliminate temptation is to give in to it, we see the reaction of Alfie’s friends, family, and boss as they learn he is gay.
The play itself involves an amateur theatre group, so, in being presented at Walterdale Theatre – one of Western Canada’s oldest amateur theatres – it’s pretty metatheatrical. I particularly loved the references to the amateur troupe’s lives outside of their rehearsals, which showed what being part of the theatre troupe means to them – whether it’s an escape from troubles at home, or just a creative outlet that helps them get through the day. The night I attended, the actor’s performances seemed a bit stiff, but maybe this was just preview night jitters, as I was unable to attend on opening night. In some cases though, this stiffness played into the preconceptions people may have of the actors in amateur theatre groups like the one in A Man of No Importance with hilarious results. The hilarity of the rehearsal scenes in the second act were some of my favourite moments of the show.
Accompanied by a talented on-stage band, with many members playing multiple instruments, the actors were able to loosen up during some of the songs, especially with the songs “Man in the Mirror” and “Love Who You Love”, whose candid and heartfelt performances stood out in the show.
Set in the 1960s, the social systems and attitudes of the time are very much prevalent in A Man of No Importance, with sentiments that insult essentially anyone who is not a straight, white, male. But this helps convey the social attitudes of the time and is necessary to understand the risk Alfie takes in revealing his true self to his community. Within the context of recent legislation supporting the rights of the LGBTQ community this year, it also provides a look back at how far we’ve come from the 60s.
Another theme of A Man of No Importance is the role of art and censorship in society. Despite Alfie’s continued proclamations that you can never go too far with (say it with me now) Art, the consequences of Alfie’s attempts to mount Salome at a church remind us that art can – and often does – go too far in the eyes of public and institutional opinion. Alfie risks public opinion and the status of his community theatre troupe by mounting Salome, in a time where the church was still incredibly important in society. Although Alfie argues that it’s not sinful because it’s art, the church council ultimately deems Salome inappropriate and bans the theatre troupe from using its space. A Man of No Importance reminds us that art can never just be art. It’s always a reflection of a community’s attitudes, opinions, and beliefs and can never be presented outside of those things.
On the production side of things, Joan Hawkins’ gorgeous brickwork, church windows, and floorboards stood out, as always.
One thing I noticed during the performance that seemed a bit out of place was that a few props such as bus tickets and wine in the wine bottle, etc. were missing. While Walterdale is a community theatre, they typically put as many resources into the production as a professional theatre. While it is a small thing, I was unclear whether the missing props were a reference again to the community theatre troupe being portrayed in the show and the assumption that community theatre means low production value, despite it happening while the characters were in their day-to-day, non-theatre lives, or whether there was another reason they were omitted.