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Theatre Reviews

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Irish Independent | Theatre: Northern Star, Project Arts Centre, Dublin
Review: Lead hinders play bristling with energy
Apr 28 2016

Henry Joy McCracken, his lover Mary and their illegitimate baby daughter hide out in a cottage in the hills. The 1798 United Irishmen rebellion has just failed. The yeomen are on their way and McCracken, like the rebellion, is doomed.

As the events of his last evening unfold, McCracken's life flashes before him, rendered in scenes of pastiche as might be written by Irish writers, including Boucicault, O'Casey and Beckett. These scenes function on their own terms as comedy, and recognising the styles is simply an added bonus for theatre nerds.

Highly theatrically self-conscious, the work bristles with energy. Though McCracken is primarily played by a single actor, in several of the playlets other actors portray him. At one stage we have four Henry Joy McCrackens in green coats with white neck ruffles on the stage. This is not at all confusing, and very funny.

Lynne Parker directs her uncle's work for Rough Magic with characteristic brio. Its multiple time settings and comic pastiches are handled by the excellent ensemble with spectacular energy and aplomb.

But the enterprise is marred by Paul Mallon's abject interpretation of Henry Joy McCracken. When his fellow prisoners in the Behan pastiche accuse him of self-pity, you can't help agreeing with them.

Instead of being a charismatic leader, he is petulant and whiney. If McCracken failed fully to inspire the country in 1798, he still needs to electrify the audience in the present.

The theatricality of the work is enhanced by Zia Holly's brilliant design which sets the action in a jumbled backstage space. Use of instruments providing percussive tension, including a big fat Lambeg drum, is another fine touch.

Stewart Parker's multiple time set play from the 1980s gains another historical layer in the 30 years that have elapsed since its premiere. It is a reminder that the idea of nationhood used to be the regular stuff of Irish dramatists, and not just in centenary year commissions.

Link to Irish Independent review


Irish Independent | Theatre: The 39 Steps at Gaiety Theatre
Review: Plenty of laughs as comedy trumps tension
Mar 30 2016

This clever adaptation by Patrick Barlow based on Hitchcock’s 1935 film, and also the original novel by John Buchan, is a fast paced virtuoso comic version of the espionage thriller.

Handsome Richard Hannay’s quiet London bachelor life is disturbed by meeting a strange foreign woman at the theatre. She is shortly afterwards murdered in his flat, having imparted some clues about a plot against the security of the British state, thus propelling Hannay on a journey north.

A strong theatrical equivalence is found for the filmic narrative, as director Maria Aitken packs every moment with first-rate theatrical business. The play’s origins as a Brechtian romp are still apparent, despite a layer of West End gloss. The tour-de-force is the trip by train to Scotland, including the chase along the train roof, and the dangling from the Forth bridge.

Richard Ede as Hannay is charming and urbane and terribly British; Olivia Greene is mostly good as the three significant ladies, though a little more tenderness between her and Ede would have enriched the ending. Andrew Hodges and Rob Witcomb show high comic skill as they flit between dozens of parts with hats and overcoats changing at breakneck speed. In the chase across the highlands they convincingly create landscape features, including a cleft in a rock, a stream and a bush.

Fans of the Hitchcock film may be disappointed that the tension is completely sacrificed on the altar of comedy. There are lots of references to other Hitchcock films, including Psycho and North by Northwest, and phrases of their familiar musical scores will reward the cinephile. The show opens with a black and white silent movie effect created by strobe lighting. The occasional use of shadow puppets is inspired. Two bowler-hatted salesmen on the train morph into Laurel and Hardy.

A Christmas ending feels a little out of season, though since the show ran for a decade in the West End, it obviously hit season from time to time.

Link to Irish Independent review


Irish Independent | Theatre: The Plough and the Stars, Abbey Theatre
Review: Anti-war polemic hits target
Mar 18 2016

Director Sean Holmes places Sean O'Casey's anti-war polemical play in present-day Dublin, bringing a sharp contemporary resonance and relevance to this 1926 classic.

The staging problems posed by the multi-layered tenement setting are superbly solved with a clever set design by Jon Bausor, based around an aluminium scaffold tower.

The Final Act, in Bessie Burgess's attic room, with its demands for elevation and access to a window, poses a particular challenge. These needs are met in a stunning design coup-de-theatre involving the tower.

Paul Keogan's busy lighting plot matches Bausor's inventiveness with several great touches including an actual starry plough. The interweaving of some of Pádraig Pearse's speeches into the pub scene is always a tricky bit of staging. That challenge is well met here by putting Pearse on an imaginary TV, suspended over the audience.

One major pay-off of the updating is the physical intimacy established between Nora (Kate Stanley Brennan) and Jack (Ian-Lloyd Anderson) in Act 1.

Stanley Brennan is a wonderful Nora: the ladylike aspects played down; a sinuous femininity played up. Eileen Walsh delivers a thoroughly complicated Bessie Burgess, her piercing dramatic presence easily does the heavy lifting in the final scene. Mollser, a sweet Mahnoor Saad in a red football jersey, is brilliantly deployed, giving us a breathy consumptive overture.

The men fare less well. Uncle Peter (James Hayes), the Covey (Ciarán O'Brien) and Fluther (David Ganly) are pushed more in the direction of pantomime. Fluther's everyman heroism is swamped by his hilarity.

The fourth wall is not so much broken as smashed, with plenty of lines delivered directly to the audience and songs done karaoke-style.

For all its trickiness and invention, the core portrayal of the horror of war's effects on the populace, is superbly delivered. Contemporary sound effects of low flying aircraft remind us of other wars, in other places.

Link to Irish Independent review