Wednesday, February 09, 2005

REVIEW: I, Keano (The Olympia, Dublin)

When a bust up with his manager during the final preparations for the 2002 World Cup saw Ireland and Man United's Cork-born midfield general, Roy Keane, head for home before a ball had been kicked, it also provoked a fissure in the Irish nation. That collective sense of hurt and confusion was all the more acute because had Roy Keane lead the team, Ireland would have, without even the faintest trace of doubt, won the World Cup.

While Keane headed for Cheshire and his team mates for Japan, back in Ireland, the why of it all became the source of a relentless dispute -- on TV and radio, in newspapers, on buses, in taxis, down dark alleys. If it did not quite oust the Civil War from national memory, it certainly made that violently divisive struggle seem like a minor, off-season friendly.

It was never a debate in which anybody struggled too hard to see both sides, and as such offers excellent dramatic material, jammed with epic clashes and ancient themes, almost classical in their clarity. But it took one more ingredient to produce I, Keano, Arthur Matthews and Michael Nugent’s masterfully-executed musical comedy on the events of that notorious Summer.

It is a curious fact of Irish life that the country possesses a standing army of comic actors who derive their notoriety almost exclusively from impersonating soccer stars. The manoeuvres of this legion have clearly not gone unnoticed by Nugent and Matthews (sire of Father Ted) who have leveraged all this formidably comic talent and energy into the funniest sports musical you are ever likely to see.

As it happens, they have also created a bristlingly intelligent, sophisticated show about masculinity, celebrity and the hall of mirrors and prisms that is the contemporary media. That they have done all this by transposing the Keane-McCarthy feud to ancient Rome, adding a touch of panto and some dangerously funny song and dance (with the help of songwriter, Paul Woodfull) makes for an even more remarkable achievement.

Even if belly laughs are the cherished prizes here, the writing is usually richly layered, with every gag apparently embedded in at least two more. A scene, for example, in which Keano (Mario Rosenstock) is enticed by Dumphia (gloriously played by Gary Cooke as Keane's "biographer," Eamon Dumphy, transformed into a wood nymph) turns into an unworldly love duet sung by a biographer and his subject. A creature called "Fergie" appears in the form of a dolphin, given to Gnostic pronouncements delivered in an impenetrable Scottish accent, pronouncements that leave the usually implacable Keano in transports of gurgling delight. (A mischievous homoerotic charge runs through the entire show).

I, Keano is just a little bit smarter, a little bit more resonant, a little bit funnier than anyone had the right to expect. Would that the soccer team had surprised Spain in quite the same way. As it happens, Ireland did not win the 2002 World Cup. But now at least one, fine, true thing has come out of that sad debacle. Now, at last, the healing can begin.

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