Wonderful characters – The Gentleman Clothier at UCP


– Is there anyone, anywhere, who has not, maybe just for a short time, felt that he was actually living in the wrong era? That his problems would be fewer, his joys greater, his whole life more worthwhile if only he’d been lucky enough to live in another time and place? 

That is the premise of Upper Canada Playhouse’s new production of playwright Norm Foster’s The Gentleman Clothier, which is running at the theatre until October 4.

Norman Davenport, an impeccably correct gentleman’s tailor, has newly opened a shop on a street in Halifax, a street that is, he believes, shortly to become a promenade, ensuring an endless flow of customers to his door. 

He is committed to his belief that  “a clothier’s shop should be a sanctuary… People aren’t here just to buy a suit…they are here to escape the travails of the world.” Every detail of the shop must be just right. Quality wooden shelving, an elegant display window, the very best of fabrics, personal, discreet service. Norman is a man whose life to this point has been meticulously and quietly measured out in inches and inseams. 

And that is precisely why he is disconnected to the people and the modern world around him. He longs for what he believes was a kinder, gentler time in the 19th century where “people were dressed to the nines. Politeness was the order of the day…Culture flourished. What I wouldn’t give to be there.”

 The Gentleman Clothier makes it clear, however, that it is always best to be careful what you wish for.

This unexpected Foster comedy is built around two worlds colliding: Norman’s idealized concept of a past century, and the brash, hurry, hurry world of modern Canada with its bustle and often times quiet tragedies.  

Foster’s characters are the heart and soul of this play. 

The audience has time to get to know them: the sophisticated, wealthy and secretly passionate customer, Alicia Sparrow; the comically endearing, gentle handyman Patrick; the blunt-spoken, out-spoken ‘fugitive from a tattoo parlour’, shop assistant Sophie. 

Then there is Norman himself, an other-worldly gentleman, whose idea of handling a crisis and tears is to earnestly ask the weeper if “you think an ascot might help?”

The humour of the play (and the audience often simply bursts out in laughter) is developed out of knowing and caring about these four people.

Director Chris McHarge said in an earlier interview that his cast has built “a strong dynamic together. ..If what I thought was a good idea in my living room doesn’t make it into the final show, well that’s actually a good thing. A play is really the collaboration between the actors and the director.”

Brian Young is Norman. Sophia Fabiilli is Sophie. Heather Hodgson is Alisha Sparrow. Allan James Cooke is Patrick. Each is a distinctive and memorable character: touching, hilarious, diffident, prickly, brazen, but always memorable. 

Much of the humour of this play is dependent on the way these four individuals are thrown together in very unexpected ways. There are priceless lines, and priceless reactions to those lines.

I laughed a lot. So did the audience. “Norm Foster has the natural ability to write shows people in the audience can identify with. And through humour, he addresses many things,” said artistic director, Donnie Bowes. 

And perhaps, as Norman, the play’s gentleman clothier, eventually comes to realize, the world you are born into may in the end be “the best of all possible worlds.”

Just a note about the set for this production, designed by Eileen Earnshaw-Borghesan. It is stunning. From the rich wood grain wall painting, to the suits hanging in softly lit cupboards, from the inlaid ‘wooden’ flooring, to the dignified doorway with its elegant shade, this set has the look and feel of reality. The Gentleman Clothier is a show case for the talents of the Playhouse crew. 

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