Whatever degree of success Marie Jones achieves from her dark but undeniably funny comedy, Fly Me To The Moon, is dependent on her dexterity in continuing to weave continuing variations on one central situation. And any stage production’s degree of success is dependent on how well it responds to both the opportunities and challenges presented by the script. On that basis, John P. Kelly’s production for the Great Canadian Theatre Company is a winner.
The central dramatic situation, essentially, is this: Frances (Mary Ellis) and Loretta (Margo MacDonald) are two Belfast care-workers who take advantage of the potential windfall that confronts them when Old Davy, the elderly pensioner they look after, dies in the bathroom.
What they are doing is illegal — a fact acknowledged by the no-nonsense Frances as she talks the fluttery, anxious Loretta into using her possession of the old man’s PIN number in order to withdraw his latest pension deposit from the bank.They are motivated less by greed than by economic necessity and by resentment towards a system which denies them less than their fair share of the nation’s wealth. In other words, the cash will definitely come in useful.
Mary Ellis’s portrayal of the formidable Frances is sharply observed and nuanced: this good lady’s eye is always on the main chance, but she also has the capacity to rationalize bad behaviour, be it her son’s involvement in music piracy or her own readiness to rob the dead. It’s not that she lacks a sense of right and wrong — rather, it’s something she’ll keep banishing to the back burner, especially when the promise of even more more loot emerges in the form of winnings from the last horse race on which their 84-year-old charge had placed a bet. After all, what real harm is being done, given that Old Davy has apparently died without heirs?
The problem, of course, is that for all Frances’s forcefulness of personality, both she and Loretta prove to be a notably inept pair of crooks — working themselves into a frazzle, for example, when faced with the challenge of keeping the actual time of Davy’s death a secret. And soon, even as they futilely concoct one hare-brained scheme after another in a futile effort to protect themselves, their consciences are also starting to haunt them.
Many playgoers will note that Fly Me To The Moon has more than a passing resemblance to the 1989 movie, Waking Ned Devine, about an Irish community’s collective effort to conceal a local’s death in order to collect his lottery winnings. The movie was essentially a frolic; Jones’s play, on the other hand, is darker in texture, never letting us forget that these two embattled women are representatives of a culture living lives of economic desperation and deprivation.
This latter factor also explains why Jones’s play differs from a typical Ray Cooney farce in which an act of concealment or subterfuge spirals out of control through a series of wildly comic situations.
We have comic spirals as well in Fly Me To The Moon, but also — in this production — they are borne along on that undercurrent of social seriousness. Under John P. Kelly’s direction, the play is never allowed to fall back into easy escapism. Mary Ellis’s marvellous performance is often enormously funny, but also reveals Frances’s complexity. The character of Loretta, as written, offers less scope and more challenges for actress Margo MacDonald. But it is a solid performance of a woman consumed by anxiety — not just anxiety over being found out and arrested for stealing Old Davie’s money, but anxiety about her husband’s unemployment and its impact on an already financially-embattled household. And MacDonald certainly provides moments to cherish — for example when Loretta makes this comically rueful observation: “I could be arrested for theft, fraud and murder — and it’s not even 4 o’clock.”
However, despite the excellence of this production, it leaves one with the nagging feeling that Fly Me To The Moon would have worked better at a shorter length. That spiralling comic mayhem starts to show signs of tiredness before the play reaches its big moment — an ironic but dramatically convenient revelation about Old Davy. But, thanks to this Ottawa production, it remains an invigorating evening at the theatre.
The action takes place in Old Davie’s bedroom, appropriately conceived by designer Sarah Waghorn. However, Waghorn’s design concept goes further than that — and unnecessarily so. That background of brick row housing is no doubt intended as some kind of comment on the drab uniformity of urban Irish life, but from this corner it looked like an attempt to fill up an unused portion of a large stage.