Wingfield’s Inferno

By Dan Needles
Performed by Rod Beattie
Directed by Douglas Beattie
Original music by Stephen Woodjetts
Grand Theatre, London
April 10 to May 5, 2007
Reviewed by Mary Alderson

Almost too true to be funny

The Wingfield franchise has another hit with number six, Wingfield’s Inferno, now playing on the main stage at London’s Grand Theatre. In each of the one-man shows, Walt Wingfield tells about life in mythical Persephone Township.

In this set of vignettes, Walt shares his experiences with his new baby daughter, Hope, and her first words, his frustration with the high cost of insurance, the training of a young horse, the capture of a nuisance skunk, the amalgamation of the local municipalities, the politics of the member of parliament, and the rebuilding of the Orange Hall after a disastrous fire. And while it sounds like a bunch of disjointed short stories, author Dan Needles always finds a clever way to tie it all together.

Needles began writing Walt Wingfield’s letters over 20 years ago. As editor of the Shelburne newspaper, Needles prepared a weekly column about Walt, a stockbroker who became a hobby farmer, and how he was swallowed up by the people in his rural village. These columns became a play, and here we are today, six plays later.

Needles has a firm grasp on rural life, and an ability to juxtapose the city-slicker with country problems. The humour comes from the contrast between Walt and his new rural family and friends – they obviously love him dearly, but years later, he is still the newcomer and an outsider.

Although they are funny, the situations Needles creates are very true. Often members of the audience are nodding their heads, very familiar with the situation. When the Orange Hall burns down, the government red tape won’t allow the community to rebuild it – the septic tank and well must be replaced, and the lot isn’t big enough for today’s standards. So it can’t be rebuilt, but hey, it could be renovated. So let’s just rebuild it and call it a renovation. Too true to be funny – we’ve seen this happen in real life. The irony is an audience favourite.

Actor Rod Beattie makes Needles’ words come alive. Beattie has performed all productions of all six plays in the series, and in each show, he plays many parts. If Needles’ script isn’t funny enough, Beattie will raise one eyebrow just right to bring out the laughs. As Walt Wingfield, Beattie narrates the story, but then does all the voices for the cast of characters that Wingfield encounters. He expressive eyes let the audience know when he’s someone else – and his delightful voice for wife Maggie is charming. He even supplies the voices for the dog Spike and baby daughter Hope. In this play, Beattie has fun with the MP character, a good-old-boy politician who pretends to know everyone, but can’t remember a single name. When the audience anticipates an upcoming joke and starts to laugh, Beattie says “You’re ahead of me on this one,” and breaks up, too, which only adds to the fun.

Beattie’s brother Douglas Beattie has directed all the Wingfield plays, and obviously has a knack for working with Rod and perfecting the comedic timing. Douglas Beattie has produced the Wingfield TV series, which can be seen on CBC.

In the past, the Wingfield shows have always graced the stage in the McManus Theatre, downstairs at the Grand. Artistic Director Susan Ferley decided that number six had built enough following to fill the seats in the main stage theatre. Walt Wingfield’s popularity has put the hick town of Larkspur under the Grand’s classical proscenium arch, and the contrast works.

Wingfield’s Inferno continues at the Grand Theatre in London until May 5. Tickets are available at the Grand box office at 672-8800 or 1-800-265-1593.


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