Which Thames River? And for that matter, which Grand Theatre? The confusion between “our” London and “the other” London is the theme of a new play opening this fall at Grand Theatre, London, Ontario. Written and directed by Morris Panych, the concept has been in the works since 2017. “I love the notion of connecting London, England and London, Ontario,” says Panych. He lived in London, England for two years, and he has a connection to our London via Dennis Garnhum, artistic director of the Grand Theatre. Garnhum grew up in our London and he set up several opportunities for Panych to get to know our city, including tours, informal focus groups and visits with Tourism London.
“Aside from all of the names and similarities, I think it’s funny that famous places you have heard about your whole life had a parallel in London, Ontario and when you go there they are not the same. I found that sweet. I wanted to personalize London, Ontario as a place. I always thought it must be weird to be from a place that is named after a place that is so much better known,” says Panych.
This London Life is a comedy and at times farcical. It’s a tale of mistaken location, telling the story of a man who shows up in London, Ontario thinking he is in London, England. He is confused because he hears familiar place names, such as Covent Garden Market and Thames River, yet he cannot comprehend that he is not in England.
The cast includes a ten-year-old narrator, Ryan Shaw of Petrolia. He was discovered during an audition call in Toronto. “You don’t often get to see a person of that age take on such a major role,” says Panych. “I couldn’t believe how bright he was. He understood the humour and nuances of the show. He really got it and it wasn’t like he was coached by his parents. He connected with the material so well.”
Beyond the humour, the play also hopes to touch on a discovery of what it is like to live in the shadow of something else. Panych hopes to reflect a London, Ontario that has its own personality. “We are all living in the shadow of something in this county — the shadow of the U.S., of Britain — [some places] in Canada are named after other famous places. However, second time around gives us opportunity and freshness. We can create our own new thing. That’s what’s great about Canada,” he says.
This London Life is part of the COMPASS New Play Development program. With funding provided by Tourism London and Carlyle Peterson LLP, COMPASS is dedicated to creating and premiering new work at the Grand, according to Garnhum. He says it is part of the Grand’s strategy to commission, write, produce, and premiere original plays that are relevant to local, provincial and national locations. As well, the plan is to share plays such as This London Life with theatres and stages around the world.
“A major thread throughout my career has been a focus on developing new work. This season we are staging new works, such as This London Life, which allow us to reflect our city, and its people — to show who we are and who we want to be,” says Garnhum.
Panych has his home base in Toronto, which is where he workshopped the play before bringing it to London and sharing it with selected members and friends of the Grand Theatre. Panych has a long and successful history of writing, creating and directing plays across Canada, including productions at the Stratford Festival. He is a recipient of a Governor General’s award. He is also an award-winning actor on stage and TV, including roles on The X-Files.
Currently writing a digital series for the CBC, Panych has also been actively developing a new production — Frankenstein Revived — with David Coulter since 2016 for Stratford. “I am delighted to welcome Morris back to Stratford as a director,” says Antoni Cimolino, Artistic Director. “His work with both movement- and text-based pieces is truly inspiring.” Frankenstein Revived will be on stage in 2020 at the Stratford Festival’s newly renovated Tom Patterson Theatre Centre.
This London Life previews October 15–17, opens on the Spriet Stage October 18, and runs until November 2.