Thursday, December 07, 2006

REVIEW: The School For Scandal (Abbey Theatre, Dublin)

When Lady Sneerwell and the other gossips of her school for scandal swing into action, it takes a few moments to adjust to the highfalutin buzz of eighteenth century English in the Abbey’s Christmas show. Or perhaps, the slight delay is just a moment of confused recovery from staring at the retina-zapping red set that strafes the audience before the actors arrive.

Luckily enough, when the cast set to work the performances have the kind of torrential flow that soon enough makes you feel as at home with Lady Candour, Joseph Surface and Sir Benajmin Backbite as you might be in the company of Felicity Shagwell.

Sheridan’s vicious comedy was first staged in 1777, but here gets the kind of ridiculously ramped up production that makes it look like, if not a teenager, at least as sprightly a 223-year-old as you are likely to meet. The plan here is clearly seasonal fun – and seasonal colour. But the quality of the material means the show refuses to lie down and simply entertain. Jimmy Fay, not a director you might immediately associate with rollicking good fun, gives the production the shape and momentum it needs to capture both the farce and the frightening viciousness of it all.

The ensemble cast is pretty much uniformedly on the money. So it is entirely unfair to single out some top quality mincing from David Pearse, whose grandiloquent clown, Sir Benjamin Backbite is timelessly grotesque, or Mark Lambert’s dry old stick, Sir Peter Teazle, or the crowd-pleasing Rory Keenan, with his Colin Farrell badboy act as the wastrel, Charles Surface.

Ferdia Murphy’s set (a half sister to the one for Emilia Galloti at this year’s theatre festival) is an startling white, cartoon box decorated with simple graphics, providing a clever ground for Paul Keogan’s scene-setting lighting and the multicar pile-up of Leonore McDonagh’s ever more nauseously clashing costumes. Nicely done.

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Wednesday, June 15, 2005

REVIEW: The Ha’penny Bridge (The Point, Dublin)

You know you’re dealing with a class show when the writer’s program biog boasts The Production and Marketing of Beef in Europe among his previous works. And it is no joke: Alastair McGuckian, who wrote the book, music and lyrics for The Ha’penny Bridge spent most of his life in the cattle trade and currently owns the biggest dairy heard in the world. Now, can Andrew Lloyd Webber claim that?

McGuckian’s mega-musical seems to have been coming down the tracks for so many months now, it is hard to believe it’s only having its first night. Any show would have difficulty living up to that much marketing, but The Ha’penny Bridge is so obviously determined not to short-change anyone that it seems -- almost -- to justify the palaver. This is a big show.

Where recent Irish musical endeavours, such as Shay Healey’s The Wiremen, have been apt to look a little cash-strapped, The Ha’penny Bridge goes the whole hog – offering a whopping great orchestra with a stonking percussion section, thundering chorus, epic dance numbers, big sets and slightly bigger emotions. With that kind of bill of fare, is it surprising if there is very little room for subtlety?

The Ha’penny Bridge is also distinguished by a coherent (though hardly innovative) storyline, something that just about gives the show enough drive to keep going for its near three hours length.

In Civil War-torn Dublin, the feckless natives are busy drinking and ‘hooring, while their more engagé brethren are busy shooting each other. So far, so Plough and the Stars. One fine daughter of Monto, Molly (Annalene Beechey) gets mixed up with an English bloke who is attempting to buy her father greyhound, Fair City. Trouble and strife ensue.

McGuckian’s story has the clean lines that allow several characters to develop, but it is the staging and the music that remain in charge here, with some fine orchestral manoeuvres (directed by Gearoid Grant) and winning vocal work from Beechey and Flo McSweeney among others.

Various actors – including Aidan Kelly, Mark Lambert and Mark O’Regan – keep the dirty Dublin quotient high, despite some rather odd accents emanating from the international chorus.

There are, all the same, moments of dullness and paddywhackery that are hard to stomach. The particularly grating use of the world “macushla” was symptomatic of larger issues with the show. Scenes regularly lurched into excruciating stage Irishisms and demented blarney. Dub Dub Dub, for example, a song extolling the virtues of porter, is nothing short of hokum. A bit of a trimming of the otherwise strong herd might benefit here.

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Friday, October 04, 2002

REVIEW: Ariel (The Abbey, Dublin)

2002's Dublin Theatre Festival, which runs this month in the Irish capital, has few more intriguing prospects than the long-awaited return to the Abbey stage of Marina Carr. The playwright’s last outing here, By The Bog of Cats, a ravishing poetic drama, an excoriating visions of family life, full of shimmering classical resonances, announced the arrival of the mature voice of a major writer.

During the intervening four years, Carr brought her On Raferty’s Hill to Galway’s Druid Theatre and continued working on Ariel, a play she has had under way for many years. Now that that work has finally surfaced, it has, perhaps unsurprisingly, some trouble living up to expectations, not least because what Ariel has to offer looks remarkably like more of the same.

The play is, once more, set in Carr’s native midlands, a countryside ruled by lakes and their reservoirs of unsavoury secrets. We meet Ariel at her sixteenth birthday party, where her parents, Fermoy (Mark Lambert) and Frances (Ingrid Craigie) and her uncle Boniface (Barry McGovern) have all gathered for a slice of birthday cake.

Fermoy, an aspiring politician, is engaged in a viciously-contested election battle. But the squabbles of political life look like warm handshakes in comparison to his homelife, where his battles with his wife have the rancorous odour of old, old meat. By the next scene, 10 years have passed, Ariel has disappeared and Fermoy is showing off his shiny suit to the TV cameras on the eve of what looks likely to be his elevation to the head of the government.

The classical touchstone this time is Iphigenia at Aulis, the story of a leader willing to sacrifice everything – up to an including his teenage daughter – in the pursuit of power. But where By The Bog of Cats wore its learning lightly, Ariel at times becomes stymied in its attempt to touch all its antecedents plot points, turning the evening into something of a trudge.

With Carr insisting on getting so much of the original in, the integration of mythical and everyday contemporary – something of a speciality with the writer – becomes somewhat jerky. Every now and then, as though to stem the tide of literal readings among her audience, Carr seems to yell “it’s a metaphor, stupid…” at the audience, as suddenly the dead walk (and make phone calls) skulls are held aloft, enormous Stetson-baring shadows are cast and the stage begins to ooze with Kensington Gore.

Through the knifeplay, Eileen Walsh (the original Disco Pig) and Dylan Tighe, (as Ariel’s sister and brother) both newcomers here carve out sharp, exciting little spaces for themselves, making some of the old guard look more stolid than stately. Equally cutting and savvy is Caitríona Ní Mhurchú as a delicately probing TV interviewer.

Among the old order, Mark Lambert’s satanic patriarch has a suit stuffed full of warped power, even if the actor appeared to think, every now and then, that he had signed up for satire, rather than poetic tragedy.

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