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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