Long, winding, unable to see the light: all attributes of any government office, and of The Public Servant. Also taupe — very, very taupe. This production, created by Theatre Columbus and presented by the Great Canadian Theatre Company in association with Canada’s Magnetic North Theatre Festival, offers lots of insight and inside jokes, but in ways that are only available to civil servants.
The show opens with a young woman named Madge (Haley McGee) professing her love for Canada, and vowing to serve it in the way she sees best, by becoming a public servant. As she is shown around the office on her first day, Madge encounters all walks of life that call the government office their home, especially Lois (Sarah McVie) and Cynthia (Amy Rutherford), two experienced, older colleagues. Through a series of comedy-sketch-like scenes, Madge learns, whether she likes it or not, how the public sector truly works.
While the show does have some funny jokes, and the actors are all very charismatic and execute said jokes quite well, the show overall has an unaccomplished feel that comes down to Jennifer Brewin’s direction. In between scenes with real content, there are many interlude-like passages that take too much time to work comically. For instance, as Lois shows Madge the office for the first time, in a well-choreographed series of simple set changes to create the impression of a never-ending maze, it ultimately takes the characters so long to get to the office that the humour is too far gone to land well. Similarly, we later see Madge dozing off at her computer screen, and though you may smile, it’s a very long sketch which doesn’t progress the story.
That being said, McVie gives a wonderful performance as Lois, the loveable, down-to-earth office manager. Lois is the happy medium between overly passionate Madge and ready-to-retire Cynthia. She’s the only one who we learn has a life outside of work; she’s dating a new guy, moving her kids around, and taking Weight Watchers-conscious trips to Tim’s. McVie never lets her authenticity down in this role, and as an audience member, you can always find something in Lois you can relate to.
Anna Treusch, and Martin Conboy and Jingwei Zhang deserve praise for their set and lighting designs (respectively), which capture the office look very nicely, from the taupe everything to the fluorescent-like lights.
The biggest question around this show comes down to the Magnetic North Festival, which is meant to show the best Canadian theatre to the international theatre community. The Public Servant is so rooted in the Ottawa area, both socially and geographically, that many of the jokes are for one demographic only: the real-life public servants of Ottawa.
To think that this show can be produced anywhere outside of Ottawa would be too bold. I think it’s safe to give The Public Servant the pink slip.
The Public Servant
Great Canadian Theatre Company (GCTC), co-developed with Theatre Columbus
By Cullen McGrail