Joey Smallwood’s Newfoundland or Old Lost Land?
I really enjoyed the novel The Colony of Unrequited Dreams when it came out in 1999. Author Wayne Johnston tells the story of Joey Smallwood and how he gained enough power to bring Newfoundland into Canada in 1949, becoming its first premier. The book includes the fictional character Sheilagh Fielding who gives Johnston freedom to add interesting plot twists.
Artistic Fraud Productions of Newfoundland took the story, shaped it into a play, and took it on the road, arriving recently at London’s Grand Theatre.
This is the third of Artistic Fraud’s productions that I’ve seen at the Grand: Oil and Water was presented in 2014 and Tempting Providence in 2012. Both plays were fascinating tales of Newfoundland history and, like those, The Colony of Unrequited Dreams doesn’t disappoint.
Act I begins with Smallwood from 1927 to 1932, and his work as a union organizer and socialist. He determines that by working for the Liberal Prime Minister of Newfoundland, Sir Richard Squires, he can get himself elected to Parliament, but Squires fails to give him the promised riding. Smallwood’s one time school friend, Sheilagh Fielding, becomes an acidic newspaper columnist critical of Squires. So Prowse, another school friend, also working for Squires, writes letters to the editor using Smallwood’s name.
In Act II, 1933 to 1941, debt sinks the government and a Commission with a Governor sent from Britain takes over the management of Newfoundland. Smallwood hosts his own radio show making very uplifting pro-Newfoundland speeches. Then in Act III, 1947 to 1948, Smallwood meets with Canadian Prime Minister W. L. Mackenzie King and cabinet minister Louis St. Laurent to discuss Newfoundland’s joining confederation. Smallwood crosses Newfoundland campaigning for the referendum, and also hoping to win his father’s admiration.
And while this may sound like boring politics, Smallwood’s constant jousting with his ‘frenemy’ Fielding makes it fascinating. The verbal sparring in this love-hate relationship is brilliantly written. There are also sensational plot twists with an intriguing back story that I won’t reveal here.
Colin Furlong is a tiny, perfect Joey Smallwood, completely capturing the politician’s passion. Carmen Grant is an excellent adversary as the tall, tough Sheilagh Fielding. They are backed by a strong cast, each member handling various key and secondary characters.
The set gives us a dark, cold Newfoundland. Snow falls constantly whenever they are outdoors, which is much of the time. While the rest of the stage is dimmed and dark, the characters who are speaking are brightly lit. Props are minimal, but those used make the audience well aware of the location.
My only concern with this play is the length of it. It is packaged neatly into three historical time frames, so it seems as if the playwright felt compelled to have two intermissions, making for a long evening. At times the action seems slow, so I think it could be reduced to two acts – using projections or whatever is needed to let us know of the time change. For example, some of the scenes run long, such as the dysfunctional family argument when Joey returns home thinking he’s earned his father’s praise. Instead we see the father ranting and the mother bickering. We get the point; this scene could be shortened. Similarly, Smallwood’s soapbox stump speeches while he is on the hustings could be shortened, and I think it could and should be tightened in other areas.
Nevertheless, it’s a very educational evening about a fascinating historical character and his fictional foil, well played by a cast of superb actors.
The Colony of Unrequited Dreams continues at the Grand Theatre, London until April 8. Tickets are available at the Grand box office at 672-8800 or 1-800-265-1593 or visit www.grandtheatre.com.
Photo: Carmen Grant as Sheilagh Fielding and Colin Furlong as Joey Smallwood. Photo by Timothy Richard.
The Colony of Unrequited Dreams
Based on the novel by Wayne Johnston
Adapted for the stage by Robert Chafe
Directed by Jillian Keiley
Music composed by Patrick Boyle
Performed by Colin Furlong, Carmen Grant et al.
Produced by Artistic Fraud of Newfoundland
At the Grand Theatre, London
March 21 to April 8, 2017
Reviewed by Mary Alderson