Summertime … And the Theatre Is … Diverse!

Written by Jane Antoniak

It is fair to say there is something for everyone this summer at regional theatres. An elephant with ties to St. Thomas (any guesses?) shows up in Blyth, while the saga of the Donnelly’s from Lucan hits the stage at Port Stanley. There’s also Canadiana from Norm Foster who goes to Lunenburg, Nova Scotia and delivers the story home to Lake Erie. Another legendary Canadian playwright, Dan Needles, brings his iconic rural reflections twice this season — to Blyth and also to Port Stanley. And hot on the heels of last summer’s curling hit comes another comedy by Stratford writer Mark Crawford, Bed and Breakfast, also at Blyth. This and so much more is detailed below to help you map out your summer theatre trips.

While summer theatre is usually lighter fare to match the carefree season, we are going to be challenged as well. Blyth’s artistic director Gil Garratt has taken on one of the most serious crimes of our region, the murders of seniors by former nurse Elizabeth Wettlaufer, and co-written it into a play. We start our summer theatre roundup in Blyth, located 95 kilometres north of London.

The playlist this season at Blyth Festival Theatre includes (from the top): Team on the Hill; Jumbo; In the Wake of Wettlaufer; Cakewalk; and Bed and Breakfast.

Blyth Festival Theatre

Blyth Festival Theatre is celebrating its 45th season with a deepened commitment to producing Canadian stories for the stage. It kicks off its anniversary season on June 14 with a world premiere, Jumbo. Anyone who has driven into St. Thomas will have seen the statue of this famous elephant from P.T. Barnum’s circus. The statue marks the tragic ending of Jumbo the elephant, hit and killed by a train in Southwestern Ontario’s “railway city”. Playwright Sean Dixon and Director Garratt have set out to tell the story on stage of Jumbo’s fame, which lives on in local lore. Pass the peanuts and get ready for a nostalgic show. 

Heading into Canada Day weekend, Blyth brings back a 1984 premiere, Cakewalk, written by Colleen Curran and directed by Kelli Fox. Imagine today’s baking wars television shows set in the 1980s. It is a good thing there are delicious cookies for sale in the Blyth community hall as you are sure to get hungry watching this show!

Dan Needles of Wingfield fame has two shows at Blyth this season. There is a pre-season performance May 23–25 of True Confessions from the Ninth Concession, followed later in the summer by The Team on the Hill directed by Severn Thompson. 

“This is a season full of spectacle, comedy, drama, and current affairs; a season full of larger-than-life creatures, and true-to-life stories; a season that exemplifies our mission to give voice to the region and the country. Our 45th consecutive season of producing the best in new Canadian plays,” says Garratt. 

Garratt had landed in some controversy as we went to print over his decision to co-write and direct a new play which has its roots in the tragic nursing home murders by Wettlaufer. At least one family member of a victim is calling for a boycott of In the Wake of Wettlaufer. Garratt has publically stated that he sees the play as a vehicle of change when it comes to the country’s health system. He has also shared on Blyth’s social media site how the play was developed. 

In the post Garratt said “long term care in Ontario is in crisis”, and feels the conversation created by the play is “urgent, relevant, and necessary.” Props to Blyth for taking on the difficult with the charming this season. 

The theatre and the impressive Cowbell Brewery have brought tourism back to this corner of Huron County. Take some time for a self-guided tour of the brewing premises and enjoy some local taps for those who are recording beer tastings in their apps. Cowbell also offers a full menu for lunch and dinner. It is a busy spot so book ahead.

The summer line-up at Port Stanley Festival Theatre includes (from the top): The Wildest Town in Canada: Donnelly Songs and Stories, “Like Father, Like Son? Sorry.”, Lunenburg, Giving Up The Ghost, and Ed’s Garage.

Port Stanley Festival Theatre

The recently renovated Port Stanley Theatre is a perfect little jaunt from London on a summer’s day or evening. Allow space in your schedule for the Lake Erie perch offered at local restaurants. It can’t be beat! The theatre itself is now licensed and offers drinks before the show and at intermission on two patios. It is located right on the harbor in Port Stanley, next to the bridge. 

The theatre company has expanded the season from five to six shows running from May 21 to September 7. It is a delightful mix of mystery, music and comedy. Artistic director Simon Joynes has created quite the playlist for the summer. “Our 2019 season is an exciting blend of Canadian stories taking our patrons from the intimate concert setting of Jeff Culbert’s The Wildest Town in Canada: Donnelly Songs and Stories to Norm Foster’s Lunenburg through the world premiere of Giving Up The Ghost and Jamie Williams’ madcap period farce It’s Your Funeral. We’re excited by the size of the season, by the design challenges, and by the fact that it’s our biggest season to date with six unique productions.”

Joynes explains that they’ve gone to a larger season because it challenges them to become better at what they do, and because it increases the variety of programming that they can offer their patrons. 


Victoria Playhouse Petrolia

Last year’s hit at the Blyth Festival, The New Canadian Curling Club, saw a successful run in Alberta this past winter. It now returns to our region August 6-25 at Victoria Playhouse Petrolia. This delightful poke at our obsession with the game is a comedy. New Canadians learn the skills and traditions from a crusty rink rat coach. Any curling fan will simply love it. 

Victoria Playhouse Petrolia is a busy spot, with the longest season in our area for local theatre this summer. It opens on April 30 with a tribute show to Carole King and James Taylor and wraps up fittingly in late October with Dracula, a Chamber Musical. This production sees the return of David Rogers as co-artistic director in the same production he performed on the Stratford Festival stage back in the late 1990s.

Stratford Festival

Stratford Festival presents Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor from May 11 – October 26, directed by Antoni Cimolino. Above, from left: Brigit Wilson, Sophia Walker, and Geraint Wyn Davies.
Creative Direction by Punch & Judy Inc. Photography by David Cooper.

Last issue we published a feature interview with Donna Feore, choreographer and director at The Stratford Festival, hot on the heels of last season’s hit The Rocky Horror Show. This year she is busy again at Stratford with two big shows: Billy Elliot and Little Shop of Horrors. They both open in late May. It looks like an amazing season at Stratford. Congratulations to artistic director Antoni Cimolino, who has had his term extended through to the 2024 season. No surprise there as Stratford posted a $1.9-million surplus, with a 10% increase in attendance to 502,605 in 2018. It was their longest season on record, running into December, thanks to the mega fans of Rocky Horror. More than 100,000 patrons saw the show.     


About the author

Jane Antoniak

Jane Antoniak is a longtime contributor to Eatdrink, sharing her passion for food, drink, travel and the arts through her writing, while always connecting with the people she meets along the way. She is also Manager, Communications & Media Relations, at King’s University College in London.