By Liz Nicholls, .ca
There are many things you can’t, mustn’t, know in advance about Mob. For your own good. So many, in fact, that it’s tricky for Kristin Johnston to talk about the hit Quebec thriller that opens the Workshop West Playwrights Theatre season Friday.
So here’s an uncontentious backstory I can tell you. Mob (La Meute), which premiered at Montreal’s Théâtre La Licorne in 2018 (and was remounted twice there), is by the Quebec film and TV star-turned-playwright Catherine-Anne Toupin. The English language premiere (it’s translated by Chris Campbell, a former literary manager of the Royal Court Theatre in London) was at the Centaur Theatre in 2020.
And the Heather Inglis production in which Johnston appears, along with Graham Mothersill and Davina Stewart, is the first time Mob has been west. Johnston, whose tall, willowy presence, deep voice, and ace comic timing have increasingly been part of the Edmonton theatre scene of late, plays Sophie. And by way of set-up, this I can tell you: Sophie has lost her job; she arrives at a remote out-of-town B&B, in a remote corner of the Eastern Townships, for a respite from this enraging, humiliating setback.
Johnston, who’s funny and quick on the uptake in conversation, is on the phone last week from home where, like her cast-mates and the Mob creative team, she’s been rebounding from COVID (which explains why the Workshop West opening was delayed till Nov. 3). “I’ll tell you what happened when I read it for the first time. On the very first page, I was ‘what is happening? Is this character the victim? The villain? Am I going to kill somebody?’ I had no idea where this is going.”
“As I kept turning the pages I was Oh no, WHAAT?, Oh no, and kept turning…. It was very exciting!” She laughs. Which is a veritable hands-on definition of a well-made thriller, Johnston agrees. “The playwright has done a great job.” As Toupin has acknowledged in interviews, the touchstone is Hitchcock. And the B&B set-up, in which Sophie meets the odd inhabitants, has an unmistakeable Psycho reverb.
And this ups the ante: “it was written at a time, unlike Hitchcock’s, when the internet was in play. It’s a big part of Mob,” Johnston says. Ah, a sinister thought, worthy of a thriller, creeps in: the internet as the invisible web in which we are caught, playing with identities. “And the anonymity you can feel, that emboldens people to behave in ways they would never normally behave if they weren’t hidden behind this cloak of online….”
Edmonton audiences first met Johnston in a decisively off-centre comic role in Rebecca Merkley’s 2017 Fringe sleeper hit The Unsyncables. It’s an underdog comedy about a ragtag synchronized swim team (the cast never took their bathing caps off) up against a snooty fancy shmancy swim “club”. And there we saw Johnston as a somewhat perplexed eastern European import who couldn’t swim, wore water wings, and treated us to a reprise of her showstopper in a school production of Grease.
It was a tip-off that the graduate of Victoria’s Canadian College of Performing Arts, who grew up in Stettler, would flourish in roles, often boldly comic, always far from the pastel end of the spectrum where ingenues live and breathe. In Merkley’s Rivercity The Musical, spun from the Archie comics, Johnson bent her long frame not around Betty or Veronica, but the character of Reggie.
She arrived in those Dammitammy productions pretty directly from the domestic front, she says. “I was mostly parenting and doing community theatre…. I still wanted to be in theatre, but we had made the conscious decision to always have a full-time parent with the kids.” Community theatre was perfect: “I could pop out in the evening when Ash (Johnston’s husband) could be with the kids.”
She loved it. “Community theatre is great: everybody’s doing it for the love of theatre, nobody’s jaded, nobody’s ‘it’s just a job’…. That enthusiasm is just so admirable!”
And then, suddenly, Johnstone was a Northern Light leading lady. Her first role with the company couldn’t have been a stranger debut for a continuing theatre relationship. In a demanding and weird assignment, she played a four million year-old woman discovered by an elderly archaeologist on a dig in Trevor Schmidt’s 2018 production of Bryony Lavery’s Origin of the Species.
Johnston’s is a story with oddball segues. “One night Trevor came backstage and asked ‘do you play the piano?’ Well, yes. ‘Do you play the accordion?’ Well, no. ‘But you could learn, right?’” And so she did. And it came to pass that Johnstone found herself strapping on that instrument, to star as a sultry gothic cabaret artiste obsessed with red blood and the blood supply in NLT’s delicious Baroness Bianca’s Bloodsongs. “Everybody has got a leetle addiction.”
And there was another full-throttle challenge, this one multi-character, in Schmidt’s solo gothic thriller We Had A Girl Before You — yes, a solo thriller — in which Johnston dexterously populated the world and, in a compelling virtuoso performance, made us wonder just how unreliable the narrator of the tale really is.
Thrillers are a special challenge, as Johnston says. “You know what your character’s intentions are. But you have to play cards very close”: what to reveal, what to hold back. Mob, she says, “is very precise; every word is carefully chosen…. Because the playwright is an actor she understands the beats, the pauses. There’s lots to work with!”
Now that her kids are older, with lives of their own (she’s even appeared with one of them in the Citadel’s A Christmas Carol), Johnston is returning to theatre in a full way. And she’s much in demand.
Most recently at NLT, we saw Johnston as half a pair of flight attendants disturbed about earthly developments 30,000 feet below them in Enough. And, in a comic performance that stole the show, a love-struck assistant to the villain, “kind of a villain herself,” in 9 to 5 at the Citadel.
“I don’t usually get to play gentle characters,” she laughs, thinking of the rather self-effacing soul she played in her Teatro Live debut, the thriller-within-a-thriller Deathtrap, last season. And there’s a plum Teatro role coming up, a melancholy-soaked widow rescued from grief by an imaginary journey in the company’s revival of Stewart Lemoine’s Pith!.
Director Inglis has called Mob “dark and challenging.” And Johnston echoes the thought. “It’s a really interesting story. Exciting because it will make people talk.” It’s not one of those theatrical excursions, she says, “where you leave the theatre and (shrug) ‘well, that was fun’. This will spark discussion…. I wish I could leave with the audience and hear them discussing.”
Theatre: Workshop West Playwrights Theatre
Written by: Catherine-Anne Toupin
Directed by: Heather Inglis
Starring: Kristin Johnston, Graham Mothersill, Davina Stewart
Where: Gateway Theatre, 8529 Gateway Blvd
Running: Nov. 2 (in preview) through Nov. 12