A Scot, an Irishman, and two Brits walk into a bar: Asylum’s set-up reminds me of a joke but its subject matter is anything but. What begins as light-hearted reminiscences between friends on the bittersweet final night of a beloved neighborhood pub slowly culminates into a shocking finale that will get audience members talking over their own post-show drinks.
The show begins with a couple of middle-aged men, London (Doug Phillips) and Scotty (Sean Tucker), enjoying a pint at their favorite pub. Soon they are joined by Yorkie (Charlie Ebbs), the owner who is closing up shop for the final time. London and Scotty are not only regulars; they’re Yorkie’s friends who have assembled to toast his legacy.
The first act of Asylum is kind of slow as these men (later joined by Brian Stewart’s Paddy) alternate between raucously funny drinking stories and quiet memories of loved ones long departed. There may not be much character development or narrative going on but it’s an entertaining show with a language, pace, and style that kept me interested and laughing.
Staging a show about a bar in a bar may seem like a no-brainer but Live! on Elgin has some unique challenges. I’m pleased with the way that the actors and director Jodi Morden deftly made full use of the stage and got creative with exits, entrances, and staging. I also really enjoyed the variety of characters presented, particularly the contrast between Ebbs’ gentle nature and Phillips’ outbursts.
In Act One, there are only gentle hints at what’s to come: veiled references to something in these men’s shared past and cryptic questions about their future. The occasional racist slur and aggressive words foreshadow an explosive second act that brings the real heart of this play to the forefront. It’s a stinging commentary on classism, multiculturalism, the limits of friendship, forgiveness, and what happens when the world changes too fast for us to keep up.
My mind is still reeling with the perfection of the play’s title: an asylum is a place offering protection and safety, like first-world countries might to their war-torn counterparts. But it can also be, historically, an institution for the maintenance and care of the mentally ill. Which meaning playwright Doug Phillips wanted to highlight is anyone’s guess.
The last offering by NW9 Collective included Phillips’ play Last Orders, which I liked but didn’t get much out of. Phillips has built on the comedy and storytelling charm of Last Orders but punched up the content with themes anyone in Canada can relate to. Unlike Last Orders, you don’t need to be familiar with England, its history, or its culture to appreciate this play.
Once again, Phillips builds to his climax a little slowly and I might have appreciated more emotional intensity out of the actors in some scenes (I giggled a little when a character shouted “calm down” when everyone was already pretty subdued) but overall, this show was very strong and an exciting development for the new company. I can’t wait to see what they come up with next.
But that’s just my opinion and I’d like to know what you think. Did this show call for another round? Did it leave you punch-drunk or did it provoke sober second thoughts? Did the characters have you crying in your beer? Should I stop with the alcohol-related puns? Join the discussion and tell me what you think in the comments below.
Asylum is presented by The Nw9 Collective. It runs now through February 13th at Live! on Elgin. Visit their Facebook page for show times and more information. Tickets are $20 at the door or by calling 613-285-4833.