Serving Elizabeth

Marcia Johnson
Stratford Festival
Stratford Festival Theatre

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Virgilia Griffith (left) as Faith and Arlene Duncan as Mercy Credit: David Hou
Virgilia Griffith (left) as Tia and Cameron Grant as Steven Credit: David Hou
Virgilia Griffith (left) as Tia and Sara Topham as Robin Credit: David Hou

While Stratford Festival is best known for its reliably watchable Shakespearean productions, the Canadian company is no slouch when it comes to selecting and presenting contemporary plays.

The team behind Serving Elizabeth, led by director Kimberley Rampersad, must have faced innumerable problems in bringing this work to the stage, given that it eventually played to a live, masked open-air audience on a breezy summer’s day in September 2021 during the peak of the pandemic. Pleasingly, those at the well-spaced, recorded performance appeared to enjoy themselves as much as any viewer who catches up on the revamped Stratfest@home web site.

The play opens in Kenya in 1952 during the Mau Mau uprising, at a restaurant run, in the absence of the paterfamilias who is recovering from a stroke in hospital, by Arlene Duncan’s Mercy and her daughter Faith, played by Virgilia Griffith.

The happily bickering pair are interrupted by the arrival of Sean Arbuckle in the guise of posh English Talbot. He has come to taste the food but also offers a working proposition that seems irresistible to Faith but all too irresistible to her politically savvy mother. A two-week long catering engagement is more glamorously sold as an example of “the Commonwealth of the future replacing the imperial past”.

Cut to London in 2015 where Sara Topham as a TV producer (she also has fun playing the future Queen Elizabeth II) is putting together a 10-part series with the assistance of a Canadian intern (Ms Griffith again). Before too long, viewers will realise that the TV series is based around events in Kenya over 60 years before at the moment when, like Mercy’s husband, King George VI is ailing.

They will also discover that the years have been carefully selected to feature Britain at turning points, as a coronation with colonial revolution and departure from Europe respectively beckon. The 100-minute drama peaks during two heated but pivotal confrontations, one in each era, that expose heightened tensions at the same time as exploring societal prejudices.

A play that might have been little more than a glorified soap opera becomes something much deeper thanks to a thoughtful script penned by Marcia Johnson that explores issues of race, cultural appropriation, colonialism and even what it takes to be a commercially successful writer.

Yet again, this is a Stratford Festival success that is enough drama, romance and comedy to please the most demanding of viewers.

This video is available on the newly revamped and relaunched Stratfest@home web site. The library is expanded and the pricing reduced to £6.44 per month or £64.47 per annum. It is a great treasure trove that will give fans of high-quality theatre hours of pleasure.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher

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