The Orangeville Citizen
On A First Name Basis: a riveting conversation
Patricia Vanstone and Norm Foster in the Theatre Orangeville's production of On A First Name Basis. 2013. Photo by Pete Paterson

Could anyone but Norm Foster create a conversation between two people that keeps an audience spellbound for an hour and a half?

Take the premise of two individuals, associating closely for 28 years, yet the one knowing nothing about the other: Mr. Foster’s character, David Kilbride, a well known and well heeled novelist, suddenly realizes that he is not even aware of the first name of his long-term housekeeper, Ms. Hopperstaad. A passing remark on her part, a few words spoken as she is saying good bye for the day, hit him with such a powerful light of revelation that, in those seconds, their whole lives could change. He calls her back and demands information; she resists; he insists and the fun begins.

It is in the attitudes that Mr. Foster’s writing skill shines. How would two people who have been in daily contact with each other as an arrogant employer and a “Bolshie” employee, who is brusque and almost hostile - how would these two engage in an unexpected and detailed exchange of histories and commentaries?

Of course, Ms. Hopperstaad knows all about her employer’s history: his successes, his failed marriages, his heartbreaks, but her thoughts on those milestones are news to him as is the whole of her life outside his regime.

There are many surprises for David Kilbride as he learns the ins and outs of his servant’s life and thinking. The surprises for Ms. Hopperstaad are that he suddenly cares to know and his reactions to what he discovers.

The play is laugh-out-loud funny and holdyour breath tense in places. You are never sure what is coming next but you are completely willing and quite keen to find out. Starring the playwright, Norm Foster, and Patricia Vanstone, these two are a perfect foil, the one for the other, as they trade barbs and challenges, learning the hidden truths of each life – even to themselves: revelation for revelation.

Intermission came but we longed for Act 2 to begin. This on-stage production has been put together by friends, for director David Nairn and Norm Foster have been friends for years. Patricia Vanstone appeared in the first production of Mr. Foster’s first play, The Melville Boys, in 1984, which is how they met. They connected again after many years here at Theatre Orangeville.

In the last several months, they have been working on On a First Name Basis and took earlier versions of the play to Bermuda and Florida before bringing this final re-write to Theatre Orangeville. The camaraderie amongst these three is the oil on the gears that gives the performances real flow and energy. Mr. Nairn’s considerable contribution as director is evident by the actors’ body language and the spontaneity in the give and take between the two of them.

Ms. Vanstone and Mr. Foster evidently like each other and their friendship instills a special sincerity to the dialogue that is irresistible.

Once again in this theatre, the set, designed by Beckie Morris, is not just beautiful but perfect for the play. Luxurious without opulence or pretensions, the interesting formation and colouring is so great to look at, with the lighting (designed by Steve Lucas) so comfortable, you almost want to move in. Everything about the set is exactly the right background for David Kilbride.

On a First Name Basis is already booked to tour Ontario with a schedule of 79 performances! When we had the chance to ask how they would keep this two person play fresh, Ms. Vanstone said, “Every night, the audience is a little bit different – the audience is the third person. It’s always challenging, every show, to get everything right.” And Mr. Foster added, “We’re always trying to make it perfect.”

No matter how well you think you know these two characters by the end of the story, this is still a Norm Foster play, and nothing prepares you for the ending. Inevitably, you will find yourself writing their next chapter in your head and conversation. That, after all, is the best news to any playwright.

On a First Name Basis runs until April 21. Tickets at the theatre box office, 519-942- 2432, online at