Talking Movies

March 27, 2012

Improbable Frequency

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.

3/5

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October 6, 2010

Phaedra

Rough Magic presents a version of Phaedra that incorporates live music into the unfolding tragedy but the results are sadly uneven…

Phaedra charts the downfall of one of those psychotically dysfunctional families that seemed to proliferate in ancient Greece. Phaedra (Catherine Walker) is a trophy wife married to the older and brutally abusive Theseus (Stephen Brennan) but she is mad with desire for his adult son Hippolytus (Allen Leech), ironically her emotional distance only increases Theseus’ infatuation with her. When news comes that Theseus has been killed champagne is spilled and secret desires are revealed, not only by Phaedra who provocatively poses in her underwear while asking Hippolytus to help her pick out a dress for the funeral, but by Aricia (Gemma Reeves) whose father traded the house to Theseus for his debts. Much like the Abbey’s recent production of Macbeth that attempted to situate the play in Cromwellian Ireland before giving up Phaedra is littered with the remains of a half-abandoned high-concept. Theseus is apparently a property developer and there are references to the entire country circling the drain on its way out. But there’s no sustained attempt to substantively re-imagine Phaedra for the Celtic Tiger so these moments feel like cheap zeitgeist-surfing beside the more pointed resonances to be found elsewhere in the festival with Enron and John Gabriel Borkman.

John Comiskey’s stainless steel set with tunnels leading underground and huge narrow windows and video screens worked by remote control nicely de-domesticises proceedings as the gods stalk this family. Euripides’ tragedy had previously been reworked by Seneca and Racine and this version reinstates the gods Racine discarded, as well as placing five musicians led by Ellen Cranitch and Cormac de Barra on-stage scoring the action. This conceit can be utterly stunning. Aphrodite (Cathy White), Artemis (Anuna co-founder Fionnuala Gill), and Poseidon (Rory Musgrave) sing while the characters move in a stylised fashion and the first act climax is amazing, as is a later sequence where Phaedra rehearsing a speech by repeating certain lines becomes live sampling scored by repetitive music which re-creates the ritualistic origins of Greek theatre. Composer Ellen Cranitch and director Lynne Parker were deeply involved in the extended development of this version so while they should be praised for such heights they must also accept blame for Hilary Fannin’s script which is deeply uneven and too eager to ‘shock’, why else open with Enone (Michele Forbes) discussing re-shaping the contours south of the female border? Fannin favours profanity over profundity to an extent that quickly becomes deeply tiresome, and a number of Theseus’ gynaecological-flavoured insults in the second act receive no laughs when they are clearly meant to be hi-larious.

Gate mainstay Brennan’s Theseus is absent for nearly half the play and when he does appear he is deeply over the top, rolling his voice and relishing his swearwords. Sarah Greene’s saucy Ismene, talking dirty in broadest Corkonian, matches him while Darragh Kelly’s subtle turn as the psychiatrist Theramenes provides a badly needed emotional anchor. Leech redeems himself for Man About Dog with a fine performance as the tortured Hippolytus but while Catherine Walker is strong as Phaedra, for all her dialogue you never feel allowed into her psyche, and that is a disappointing outcome for a classical heroine here re-created by women.

This is worth seeing but what should have been a highlight of the Dublin Theatre Festival only intermittently reaches the heights that were expected of it.

2.5/5

Phaedra continues its run at the Project Arts Centre until October 10th.

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