’Serving Elizabeth’ makes United States debut at Players

  • Courtney Thomas as Faith and Philipe D. Preston as Montague have a flirty exchange in the Peterborough Players new production of “Serving Elizabeth.” Courtesy photos—

  • Courtney Thomas as Faith and Philipe D. Preston as Montague have a flirty exchange in the Peterborough Players new production of “Serving Elizabeth.” Courtesy photos—

  • Philipe D. Preston as Montague conveys bad news to Courtney Thomas as Faith and Tracey Conyer Lee as Mercy in the Peterborough Players new production of “Serving Elizabeth.” Courtesy photos

Published: 7/25/2022 3:36:34 PM
Modified: 7/25/2022 3:33:32 PM

In the United States premiere, the Peterborough Players opened Serving Elizabeth on Thursday night – a “what-if” tale of Princess Elizabeth’s royal visit to Kenya, on the cusp of her unexpected rise to queendom.

The newest installment of the Player’s 2022 season has a lot to say on colonialism, representation, and creating space for voices other than straight, white, male ones.

According to playwright Marcia Johnson, the play was inspired by her own viewing of the Netflix series The Crown, and in particular, the second episode, which covered Elizabeth and Philip’s royal visit to Kenya. Those Black characters that existed were mainly in the background, and enraptured by the princess, despite already ongoing unrest that would lead to Kenya declaring independence from Britain a decade later.

So, Johnson decided to write her own version of the visit.

The play follows two stories – the first being set in 1952 in Nyeri, Kenya. Tracey Conyer Lee plays Mercy, the owner of a restaurant who is struggling with a husband incapacitated by a stroke and trying to save money to send her daughter, Faith, to university in the fall. Faith, played by Courtney Thomas, having already deferred her education for three years, is eager for the opportunity. So, when an Englishman appears with a lucrative opportunity to serve as a personal cook to a mysterious high-profile guest, Faith is eager to accept on her mother’s behalf.

But when the guests turns out to be none other than Princess Elizabeth and her husband, Mercy, who has legitimate grievances with the monarchy, but needs the funding for her daughter’s education and her husband’s nursing, is torn.

Mercy’s story is fictional, but not atypical – she might not have existed, but she could have.

On the other side of the 20th century, in 2015 London, England, Kenyan-Canadian Tia (also played by Thomas) is an unpaid intern working on a new streaming series about the life of Queen Elizabeth. An aspiring screenwriter herself, Tia is disappointed at the seeming lack of care that’s taken in the depiction of Elizabeth’s Kenya trip, and sets out to try to bring some balance to the narrative.

While Faith is the narrative driver in the 1952 half of the play, it is her mother, Mercy, played by Conyer Lee who is the emotional heart of the drama. She carries legitimate hurt caused by the colonization of Kenya – personal effects which linger with her family to this day – but at the same time, is capable of empathy for the Princess Elizabeth, whose ailing father dies while she is in Kenya.

Conyer Lee is also the funniest member of the cast, playing Mercy’s no-nonsense, big personality, showing different sides of herself in her interactions with her daughter, and with the English. She can convey an emotion with a look.

If Conyer Lee’s Mercy is the heart of the 1952 section of the play, Thomas’ Tia is the heart of the 2015 half. Young, and still finding the stories she wants to tell as a writer, it’s Tia’s evolution we follow. Initially, with a bit of a devil-may-care attitude, Tia has to reexamine her priorities when faced with the reality of unconscious bias.

Tia’s confrontation with scriptwriter Maurice Gilder, played by Douglas Rees, does more to solidify for Tia what she wants to see on screen than it does to convince him to change his script – but that’s the point. Serving Elizabeth, ultimately, is about characters seizing their own destiny and speaking their truths, even if they’re not sure it will affect the ultimate outcome of their lives, to mixed results.

Kate Kenney had a dual role as Princess Elizabeth in the 1952 section of the play, and as Robin, Tia’s boss and mentor in 2015. The roles are transformative for Kenney. As Elizabeth, she portrays the character with a perfectly controlled presence, but with a surprisingly soft touch and naivete – a difficult contradiction. She embodies an entirely different personality as Robin, who acts as a guide to Tia, telling her to shelve the probably well-selling schlock for something she actually cares about.

Philipe D. Preston plays the love interest for both Faith and Tia. His modern role, where he is an actor who meets Tia while auditioning for a minor background role, has a fun, flirty energy with Thomas in both roles.

This play is structurally ambitious – each character not only has a main role in each of the two storylines of the play, some also jump in on smaller roles, which requires a lot of costume changes on the fly, some of which are quite elaborate.

The settings also have some of the most ambitious stage changes I have personally seen at the Players – perhaps too much so, as scene changes took a significant amount of time. The designs themselves, with scenic design by Jason Simms and props design by Emily Allinson look great, and do a good job of introducing the audience to the split-timeline concept of the play, but lagged a bit in the transitions. The character transformations, however, are flawless, and clearly distinct enough through both costuming, accent, and character work that there is never any confusing one character for another, even when they share a face.

For my taste, the 1952 storyline is the by far stronger section of the play. The underlying tensions of the location and era come through – and it shows. Conyer Lee as Mercy is the standout for me. The 2015 section is likely more relatable to a modern audience, as the issues Tia faces are very much still problems every person needs to face, in terms of creating art that takes into account more than one point of view, and consuming that art with a more critical eye when it fails at that task – but the stakes feel far lower when compared to the much more compelling emotional conflict in the other half of the play. But overall, the two halves flow well and tie together in a surprising twist.

Serving Elizabeth runs through July 31. Shows are every day except Monday. The curtain opens at 7:30 p.m. on weeknights and Saturdays and 4 p.m. on Sunday. Single tickets are $47, and are on sale at peterboroughplayers.org or by calling the box office at 603-924-7585. Viewers should be advised this play contains adult language.

Ashley Saari can be reached at 603-924-7172 ext. 244 or asaari@ledgertranscript.com. She’s on Twitter @AshleySaariMLT.


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