Review: Brilliant writing takes shape with On a First Name Basis
By Amanda Richardson Monday, October 6, 2014 6:12:22 MDT PM
Norm Foster in the Keyano Theatre production of On A First Name Basis. 2014

Renowned Canadian playwright Norm Foster took the stage to start the 2014-15 theatre season at Keyano Theatre and Arts Centre with his 49th play, On A First Name Basis.

Directed by Claude Giroux, it's the story of wealthy novelist David, played by Foster, and his attempt to get to know his long time housekeeper, Lucy, played by Patricia Vanstone. On A First Name Basis is a bottle episode in two acts, with the action never leaving the comfortable confines of the author's den. The audience joins David in the middle of his after dinner cognac, and is brought into the singular, comfortably familiar setting just as the evening looks to be settling down.

While David reads his newspaper and Lucy tidies the room, the characters quickly establish their history with one another. He hired her 28 years prior, knows nothing about her and fancies himself a great wit, while she is rife with nervous energy, disparaging humour and an abundant knowledge of her employer's life. Then for reasons unknown to housekeeper and audience, the author insists the long time cohabitants get to know one another on a non-professional level.

The two, with the help of substantial amounts of top shelf alcohol, meander their way through three decades of love and loss, careers and hobbies, family and friends. The discussion, or "chum-like" conversation, is superficially informative and often humorous, but delves deeper, exploring the ideas of gender, affluence and education in today's society and the employer-employee divide.

Foster's writing is brilliant, with Lucy's rapid fire derision perfectly complementing David's social obtuseness. Discussions about regret and heartbreak are balanced with asides to discuss the common usage of "therefore" over "ergo," all while making the audience feel like they're eavesdropping on a strange and truly fascinating conversation between, as Lucy puts it, a utility wench and a well-heeled scholar.

While substantially less educated than her PhD possessing employer, Lucy is smart, sharp-tongued and quick-witted, not only keeping up with the older writer, but educating and encouraging him to see ideas outside his normal scope. Vanstone plays the servant with a barely containable level of energy, walking a tightrope between fireable offences and heartbreaking vulnerability. She is brutally honest, hard working and worth every penny.

And while Vanstone is clear perfection, Foster is the fabled diamond in the rough. The character arc is more subtle, the jokes as less punchy and the revelations are frustratingly slow to come to light, but every pause, every dropped line and every clueless scholar moment drives the character closer to reality, and there is no one better suited for the journey than Foster himself.

The play, at its core, revolves around the idea of, "We all need someone to tell our story to in the end." On A First Name Basis not only tells that story, but ultimately finds the perfect person to tell it to.

The play resumes its run Wednesday at Keyano Theatre. Tickets are available online at and from the Keyano Theatre box office.