Written by and Starring R.H. Thomson
Directed by Jonas Jurasas
CanStage/Berkeley Street Theatre until March 9
26 Berkeley Street/416-368-3110 or

Reviewed by Joel Greenberg

"The Lost Boys" is a new play written by and starring R.H. Thomson. In two-and-a-half-hours, Thomson recounts the lives of his five great-uncles and other maternal relatives who endured the agony of the First World War. Drawn from over 700 letters that have been a family legacy all his life, Thomson investigates his own lack of insight as a youngster in having disregarded who his relatives were and what they contributed to his personal history. The project is wholly honest and rich in its aims. The less happy news is that it is long-winded and, in the last twenty minutes, too self-absorbed to allow the audience in.

On a set that combines front-line trench with a rear projection screen (designed by Astrid Janson), Thomson narrates his own growing awareness that the family letters are far more than a nostalgic link to the past. He portrays himself, both as a 54-year old actor and as an adolescent more intent on seeing Europe than meeting his own past, and he swings between his several uncles' personae, quoting from the letters that they sent home with staggering frequency. Underplaying as he goes, an identifyi8ng style of his entire career, Thomson never turns the production into a showcase for his myriad voices and physical strengths. When he leaps atop an upended trunk, he does so because the character would have done the same thing. When he switches the tempo or twang of his voice, it is only because he is directing our ear to another family member. Thomson resists what most other actors might choose to revel in, and by avoiding any effort at a 'watch me!' approach to story telling, he gets deep inside the life of his personal journey.

The integrity aside, however, the production keeps getting in the writer's way. The staging is very imaginative, however much it keeps pushing us away from any emotional connection with the actor or his subject. Leaping into and out of the downstage trench loses its novelty early on, and the extensive use of projected images only occasionally rises above the level of research. Too familiar war images and recounting of Christmas in the trenches, while accurate, almost always fail to tell us something we don't already know. Far more effective is the image and sound of a woman, Thomson's great-grandmother, (the image is of her and the voice, obviously, is not) who adds a note of despair without begging for sentiment.

The playing space wants to be too many things and the staging wants to dazzle us with its virtuosity. That there are as many variations as Thomson and his director, Jonas Jurasas, can invent is laudable, but much less would probably add much more weight for us to bear. By the final scenes, it is Thomson who looks and sounds overwhelmed and overextended by his history. And though that is fitting, given the relentlessness of his family's trials, it does little to encourage us to examine anything in our own lives.

The scene in which the actor shifts to his own father's death alters the texture of the monologue, and the staging that accompanies it works against everything that had come before. Trying to return to his memories afterward is not yet successfully integrated, and the effect is rather more about self than it is about the play's more gripping ideas.

The Lost Boys is a wonderful title, because it so aptly captures a world that, upon reading, we can only lament with sadness. And conjuring the image of Barrie and his lost boys, we wish that we could hold fast to an innocence that is never ours to own.  

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