Rough Magic triumphantly reprise their 2004 musical comedy at the Gaiety, atoning for writer Arthur Riordan and director Lynne Parker’s recent misfiring Peer Gynt.
Tweedy crossword enthusiast Tristram Faraday (Peter Hanly) gets recruited by MI5 as a code-breaker and is dispatched to 1941 Ireland to discover how deranged DJ Micheal O’Dromedary (Rory Nolan) keeps forecasting the weather via song titles. Tristram arrives at a Dublin MI5 station headed by an equally unlikely spy, the portly poet John Betjeman (Nolan again). Tristram’s investigations bring him into contact with drunken satirist Myles na gCopaleen (Darragh Kelly), Myles’ ingénue civil service colleague Philomena (Stephanie McKeon), rival British spy and Tristram’s ex Agent Green (Cathy White), crazed IRA chief Muldoon (Kelly again), and a genius physicist equally concerned with things of the mind and Philomena’s behind – Erwin Schrodinger (Brian Doherty). As improbable actions turn out to be set-ups for excruciating punch-lines Tristram quickly suspects that Myles and Schrodinger are working together, possibly with someone called ‘Pat’ to develop an atom bomb for Muldoon. The truth is more improbable…
Arthur Riordan’s script is closer to his Slattery’s Sago Saga adaptation than his Peer Gynt, despite the rhyming lyrics and frequently rhyming dialogue, and is consistently hilarious as well as anticipating his later handling of Flann O’Brien in Slattery in the puns Myles makes. A musical lives or dies by the qualities of its numbers and Bell Helicopter (Conor Kelly & Sam Park) provide a lively score with numerous highlights. ‘Be Careful not to Patronise the Irish’ is a wonderful show-opener as the MI5 staff welcome Tristram, while ‘John Betjeman’ is a hoot as the round-bellied but high-steeping poet makes his entrance. Irish nationalist DJ O’Dromedary’s ‘I’m just anti-British, that’s my way’ is equally memorable; not least because O’Dromedary’s hump, wig and Groucho eyeglasses position him halfway between Pat Shortt and Richard O’Brien. There are further Rocky Horror echoes in a spectacular set-change and plot twist in the second act which incorporates flashing house lights into the design. A bolero interrogation and a jig-scored parodic sex scene are trumped by Philomena’s indignant ‘Don’t you wave your particles at me, Mr Schrodinger!’ as the show’s funniest matching of words and music.
It’s shameful to only now be seeing Talking Movies favourite Nolan in his signature role of Betjeman, but he’s an absolute delight as the obese dandy eager to keep Ireland out of the war so that he can remain in his cushy posting. A whimsical highlight is his dancing on the set’s all purpose bar counter singing ‘Me Jaunty Jarvey’ while Tristram tries to solve a code. Tristram bitterly complains to the audience that Betjeman wouldn’t stop singing this damn tune for he doesn’t know how long, and Nolan bursts into ‘a long long long long long long long long long long long la long’ as he dances on. Darragh Kelly Fassbenders as a bloodthirsty Muldoon and an irascible Myles horrified by his own dreadful puns (he notes after throwing German food at her that ‘Philomena was ready for the wurst’), while Doherty’s Colonel is a sardonic delight and his Schrodinger a compendium of oddly accented words. Hanly is only a slightly better singer than Rex Harrison but is a winning comic lead throughout. Cathy White sung stunningly as Aphrodite in Phaedra, but, though she vamps it up in a Cabaret outfit as the femme fatale on ‘Betrayal’, McKeon outshines her vocally in her very promising debut for Rough Magic.
Rough Magic have infuriated for two Theatre Festivals in a row with dramas incorporating music, but any new musical comedy from them would be essential.