Talking Movies

December 3, 2019

From the Archives: Strength and Honour

From the pre-Talking Movies archives.

People with gravelly voices shouldn’t try to do Cork accents, or Welsh accents, or any accents requiring a lilt. Michael Madsen’s speaking voice resembles a cement mixer. Suffice it to say that his mercifully sporadic attempts at a Cork accent don’t work. Madsen certainly has the physique to impress as a retired fighter who killed his brother-in-law in a sparring session. Likewise Vinnie Jones as Smasher O’Driscoll, psychotic Puck of the Travellers at bare-knuckle boxing. But can actors rescue a script which is a riff off the back-story of The Quiet Man? Michael Madsen’s Sean Kelleher promised his wife never to fight again but after she dies and his son is diagnosed with the same fatal heart condition he must return to the ring. So far so corny, but this film never becomes so bad it’s good. The problem is Mark Mahon’s George Lucas-like credit as writer/director/producer. Even directors as great as Spielberg and Lean need that oppositional voice on set that says “Yeah, we thought about it and then…NO”.

There are far too many ‘very handy indeed’ coincidences floating about this film. The operation for Kelleher’s son Michael will cost $300,000. “Where am I going to get that kind of money?” rumbles Madsen, briefly attempting a Cork accent. Well, if he can raise $250,000, the government will provide $50,000 under the radar. Entering the Puck contest could win him $250,000…Billy Wilder said plot points were more effective the better you hid them. These ones are lit with flashing neon. This is the sort of obvious writing that Rodriguez had such fun with in Planet Terror. Strength & Honour though somehow never becomes enjoyably silly, even when the Champions League theme music is used for the build up to the climactic bout it never becomes absurdist, thanks to the committed playing of the cast especially Madsen and Patrick Bergin. The emotional impact of the relationship between Kelleher and fellow boxer Chaser McGrath (Michael Rawley) exemplifies how hard work by the actors can overcome the ham-fistedness of the script.

The visual flair shown by an in-jokey use of Ocean Colour Scene’s ‘100 Mile High City’ for a tracking shot across a number of bare knuckle boxing bouts in a Fight Club style grimy locale is quite startling, and suggests a level of inventiveness that Mahon also displays in his theatrical opening with a boxing ring of white light in pitch darkness. The fight scenes are well choreographed, especially the final showdown between Kelleher and O’Driscoll, and Richard Chamberlin has great fun as the hard-bitten boxing coach urging our hero through the pain barrier. Mahon proposes to direct an Irish Braveheart about Brian Boru. There is enough promise in this predictable outing to suggest that with a talented writer and a strict producer that might not be an embarrassment.

2/5

April 9, 2015

The Man in Two Pieces

Stephen Brennan and Gerard Adlum weave a web of fraudulent magic in 1920s rural Ireland in Theatre Upstairs’ new work The Man in Two Pieces.

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Vivid red curtains with an occasionally projected moon above them are the backdrop for this glimpse behind the scenes at Kerrigan’s Vaudeville Troupe. Kerrigan (Stephen Brennan) has been touring the Irish countryside for thirty years; arriving without notice, disappearing without trace, in such unlikely venues as “Gorman’s fourth field”. He keeps the same names and patter for the acts, even as he changes the artistes: his new Italian Adonis is from Sligo, and hypnotist the Great Gustavo is not really from the Black Forest, as his real name, Gordon McAleer, might give away. But just as The Boy runs away with the troupe, entranced by their magical show, the realities of the Anglo-Irish War are about to trump magic as Kerrigan insists on playing Middleton, against warnings both from his artistes and from a menacing local IRA man in Cork…

“We deal in magic” says Kerrigan, and half the trick of his trade is the audience’s desire to believe. Ironically it is just such desire, a wilful self-delusion; that politics can be ignored; which lays Kerrigan low. Brennan is on fine form as Kerrigan, a composite of canny entrepreneur, talented song and dance man, and self-mocking ringmaster who has lied so well, so often, that now all lies sound equally truthful to his ears. He may have come to Ireland from London in pursuit of a Galway girl with a beautiful voice who he made his first vaudeville attraction. He may be from Golden, Tipperary; where he expects a hero’s welcome. There are echoes of Faith Healer in Kerrigan’s contradictory narratives and this impulse to destruction; returning, like Frank Hardy’s Ballybeg, to a place where he must demonstrate his magic.

Playwright Gerard Adlum is the narrator as The Boy, who charmingly remains mute but physically expressive in his scenes with Kerrigan, and also plays the Adonis and Gustavo. He renders one with a cap and a Sligo accent, the other with a Northern accent and, in ‘character’, a German accent akin to Cabaret’s MC but with a notable punctiliousness of gait and business. Such quick changes of character are expertly accomplished through accents, physicality, props, rolling up and down of shirtsleeves, and elegant, fluid blocking by director Sarah Finlay. Finlay seems to enlarge the small playing space of Theatre Upstairs, with Kerrigan’s leaps off the stage for exits and entrances, and the constant feeling that Rebekka Duffy’s colourful and cluttered set of suitcases, brushes, and weights is only part of a wider backstage world that extends off-stage in either direction.

The Man in Two Pieces, even down to Adlum and Nessa Matthews’ two songs, is an affecting and sad play concerned with those left behind, uncomprehending, by political sea-change.

3.5/5

The Man in Two Pieces continues its run in Theatre Upstairs until the 18th of April.

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