My Gay Toronto - MGT Stage

Theatre review

Upton Abbey

by Drew Rowsome

Upton Abbey continues until late November at The Mysteriously Yours Mystery Dinner Theatre, 2026 Yonge St.

A new show at Mysteriously Yours Mystery Dinner Theatre is always eagerly anticipated even if the Columbo meets Downton Abbey theme is riffing on source material that I am only tangentially familiar with. No matter - the cast cracks more terrible (but in context utterly hilarious) jokes and the puns fly. This particular mystery is unusually unconvoluted though no-one at our table managed to solve it and groaned melodramatically for missing some obvious clues - probably because we were laughing so heartily. And the veddy veddy upper class British dinner party setting of Upton Abbey ties neatly with the murder mystery basics, even providing The Dowager Countess Violet Upton (the delightfully crisp and elegant Susan Q Wilson) with the evening's best line: a Sherlock Holmes reference that is not only hilarious but turns the proceedings into farcical performance art.

The meal was, as usual, delicious and the service is the opposite of British stuffy. The staff - even though one of the jokes (and clues) is that poor Carson Fusspot the butler is supposedly having to do it all - is attentive and efficient all while being part of the entertainment. Ken the maitre d' and the ever-smiling busboy (who alas did not wear a name tag as do the rest of the cast and audience) seem to be everywhere at once and make sure that everyone is enjoying themselves. Our classically handsome server, Adrian, who initially appeared a bit nervous having just started at Mysteriously Yours, quickly gets into the quips - when a bribery attempt to get him to reveal the murderer (I don't know why I keep trying - spilling the beans is just not in their job description) inspires him to banter back in a dead pan sotte voce whisper, "It was Adrian. In the dining room. With a coffee pot."

Upton Abbey rockets along despite halfhearted attempts to mimic the leisurely style of a BBC period piece. Audience participation is vital and surrendering to the interaction makes for a more entertaining experience though it also opens one to being the butt of jokes. The most intriguing, for a gay viewer, aspect of this production is a delightful drag character Edith Upton played by an utterly uninhibited Danny Wengle. Edith is one of the daughters in whose honour the evening is ostensibly staged - the object is matrimony. Donning a frock allows Wengle, in time-honoured British music hall and drag queen fashion, to be far more risque than one would suspect from a dinner theatre. No-one blinks an eye - one elderly man even opined, "Why you're lovelier than Dame Edna" - and the hilarity is inclusive rather than, despite the barrage of Edith needing beauty treatments gags, vicious: the ever-evolving state of gender and sexuality lines in the world at large has apparently shifted in a gently positive fashion. In many ways drag serves the sacred function of allowing for the lampooning of stereotypes and tackling the taboo: a very tasty addition to a dinner theatre murder mystery. And Wengle, despite the digs at his appearance and the unfortunate wardrobe choice of wearing flats, is far sexier than the script acknowledges.

The entire cast bites into their roles and dances along the edges of hammy overplaying (aided immensely by the adoption of both British and Deep South accents). They work hard at convincing us of their innocence - and often of another's guilt - all while remembering cues, improvising on tangents, and pouncing on opportunities to involve the audience: they are very very good at what they do. Ian Ronningen totally subverts and exploits his matinee idol good looks with a very physical and energetic performance as Carson the should-be-overwhelmed butler, and still smoothly seduces everyone in the audience. He is a one man whirlwind of entrances, exits and effortless charm. Of course being the butler he is the first immediate suspect but somehow a tinge of potential guilt and danger suits him.

Brigette Solem is regal as Lady Upton while also letting her tiara down enough to make her sexual indiscretions, perhaps because of her scripted Deep South heritage, intriguingly inflammable. Stephanie Folkins as another Upton daughter Syvil proves a nimble improviser and reduced our table to helpless hilarity with riffs on Edith and sailors. Ken MacDougall as Lord Upton is suitably stuffy and, as one of the credited writers, holds the proceedings together and keeps the plot speeding forward.
Despite studying the Murder She Wrote oeuvre and a glancing familiarity with the comforting works of Agatha Christie, I am still incapable of solving a Mysteriously Yours mystery. Maybe next time - it's just that the laughter keeps getting in my way.

Upton Abbey continues until late November at The Mysteriously Yours Mystery Dinner Theatre, 2026 Yonge St.