Saturday, July 03, 2004

REVIEW: The Shaughraun (The Abbey, Dublin)

Summer can be an awkward sport in the Dublin theatre calendar. Pressed by the needs of the flotillas of tourist buses that fill the city streets, something recognisably Irish and canonical is called for. But stick on another lazy Friel and the locals might just be revolting.

The Abbey’s play for its Centenary Summer should go somewhere to please home and away fans, giving Ireland’s successful export showman, John McColgan the reins for a production of Dion Boucicault’s 1874 stage-Irish workout, The Shaughraun. The show should be able to sell tickets on marquee appeal alone, and if it happens to be any good, the theory goes, then the sky’s the limit.

McColgan, it might be expected, should turn in something more closely related to Les Miz, than to the theatre usual output. And he can be expected to do that with some style and a bit of singing and dancing maybe. And nobody should be afraid of finding the whole experience too profound or moving.

Which is pretty much what you get: a show that is convincingly staged, energetic and reasonably good fun, performed by a cast that seems entirely convinced that they are appearing in one of the funniest productions ever to grace an Irish stage. If there is one thing impossible to fault here, it is the impression of esprit de corps.

Performers here seem to have been told to play as though their lives depended on the proportion of laughs per line, so big, broad strokes performances hail down from the opening moments when Hadley Fraser’s stiff-backed British officer springs onto the stage behind Fiona O’Shaughnessy’s Ms. Ffolliott. A certainty lack nuance is a hallmark of O’Shaughnessy’s performances in general, but here her propensity towards cheesiness is put to good use.

Adrian Dunbar has his charm on full beam in the title role and gags about with the regulation gusto, while as the evil Mr. Kinchela who is determined to keep the show’s young lovers apart, Don Wycherly eggs on the crowd with some despicably crisp physical acting.

McColgan’s presence has, in general, encouraged acting that involves the whole body, something that is rarer than in ought to be on the Abbey stage. It makes for several performances that are often little entertainments in themselves. But the result of all that collective physical endeavour is a show whose closest relative is high grade pantomime – complete with booing and hissing form the audience. Consumers who go in search of exactly that will certainly not go away disappointed.