Talking Movies

April 5, 2012

Alice in Funderland

The Abbey stages its first musical in 20 years, but if decades long moratoriums are the cost of keeping atrocities like this off the stage then it’s a price well worth paying…

Thisispopbaby bring their Project work-shopped contemporary musical take on Alice in Wonderland to the stage with Talking Movies favourite Sarah Greene in the title role. Her Alice is a hopelessly depressed Corkonian whose unfaithful boyfriend recently died from eating a peanut. Upset by the demand of her materialistic sister (a catty Susannah de Wrixon) that she be her bridesmaid, Alice has a bad reaction to a wedding rehearsal curried prawn and dreams herself stranded in a queered Dublin. As she stumbles across the city in search of Warren (Ian Lloyd Anderson) she encounters Carroll characters. The Caterpillar is a Dublin taxi-driver obsessed with British oppression, the Cheshire Cat is a corrupt politician, Tweedledee and Tweedledum are drug dealers, and… I don’t know what the Duchess is supposed to be. “I’d rather take advice from a f****** caterpillar sitting on a mushroom” is the level these references operate at; crude, unfunny.

Composer Raymond Scannell pens some memorable melodies. ‘We’re all going to Hartstown’ is nicely jaunty, the Duchess’ entry has nice shuddery techno under Carroll’s actual verse, and there’s a wonderfully poignant duet between Alice and The Gay (Paul Reid). But the fact that a character is actually called ‘The Gay’(!!) clues you that it’s not the music that’s the problem here. The first act’s wearying campiness is actually self-defeating. The Cheshire Cat as crooked politician sets up a rousing James Brown style number for the grinning Mark O’Regan about playing monopoly with the country’s future, but what could have been great satire can’t soar in this context and the attempt is quickly abandoned. Instead satire is directed at brave, original targets: The Pope, Blaithnaid Ni Chofaigh, Mary Harney. Satire punctures the pomposity of the powerful. Does a religious figure unlikely to be defended by the audience, a presenter who hasn’t been on air for over a year, and a retired politician strike you as powerful? Swift would guffaw derisively at attacking Harney not Phil Hogan, or singling out Blathnaid as the most scandalous element of RTE’s recent troubles. Attacking those targets is just pathetically easy, and that’s easily just pathetic.*

Philip McMahon’s book also irritatingly nods to the presence of the audience frequently for, again, no particular reason. Fourth wall breaches should be used sparingly (Tom Jones) or to the point of meta-textual madness (Slattery’s Sago Saga), but such pointlessness is hardly surprising as Alice runs for nearly 3 hours (including the interval) yet Sarah Greene is hopelessly upstaged by Kathy Rose O’Brien and Aoibhinn McGinnity because the script gives her nothing to do. McGinnity’s madly enthusiastic Chloe is one of the second act’s few saving graces, while O’Brien is hilarious impersonating Blathnaid and Fassbenders the Bob Fosse homage second act curtain-raiser number which is the closest this production ever feels to an actual musical…

The second act is unbearable. All the previously baffling campiness builds towards Tony Flynn’s domineering presence as Dolores, the Red Queen of Hartstown. I’ve seen the Rocky Horror Show. It’s joyous, and 90 minutes. I’ve seen Cabaret, working off Sam Mendes’ queered revival. It’s devastating, and 2 hours. Alice in Funderland fails by its own yardsticks… It’s 3 hours that degenerates into endless unfunny drag queen humour; line after line of witless comedy, whose staggering coarseness becomes incredibly tedious. The late appearance of the ‘Scissors Sisters’ is an amazing low point. I actually considered walking out, but figured such diva behaviour would only encourage the performers. The repeated chorus “We’re all torsos in the banal” is the most tasteless thing I’ve ever sat thru. It’s embarrassing to watch this on the stage of the national theatre in the same way that it’s embarrassing to see Mrs Brown’s Boys on primetime BBC. You urgently want to buttonhole the rest of the world and assure them, “All this…it’s not us. Underneath, we are more…”

If you see Alice, and don’t, feel free to leave at the interval if you’ve disliked the first act; the second act is ‘wretched beyond belief’… As I’ve tweeted, #Thisiscrapbaby.

1/5

Alice in Funderland continues its run at the Abbey until May 12th.

*If you think I’m bluffing about attacking the powerful then tune in next week when I stick it to hackers extraordinaire Anonymous who can break my poor blog like a twig.

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November 25, 2011

Slattery’s Sago Saga

Arthur Riordan redeems himself wonderfully after his misfiring version of Peer Gynt with a Flann O’Brien dramatisation for his second show of the Dublin Theatre Festival.

Riordan, freed from the self-imposed restraints of rhyming couplets in his assault on Ibsen’s verse drama, is back on top comedic form as he tackles Flann O’Brien’s unfinished novella Slattery’s Sago Saga. Rathfarnham Castle is an odd place for a play but then this is the site-specific Performance Corporation, who had umbrellas at the ready to distribute to the audience which spends the first ten minutes of the 100 minute show outside in the rain as our hero, anxious servant Tim (Karl Quinn), awaits the arrival of the houseguest from hell, his master’s fiancé (Helen Norton), who drives up in a car which he unpacks, before Darragh Kelly’s mischievous Slattery leads the audience indoors to the room that will serve as the pivotal drawing room of Poguemahone Hall.

Fassbendering aplenty comes from Michael Glenn in support as Murphy and many, many other characters. A change of walk, costume, and absurd accent and he’s yet another caricature, whether it’s a doddery old British imperialist or a parish-pumping as they come corrupt rural TD. The plot is stark nonsense about replacing the potato with a legally mandated sago crop to prevent the Irish from infesting America, with eventual undertones of supernatural invasion plans. There is though something disturbing about the uncomplicated laughs with which the Scottish villain’s anti-Irish diatribes are met as such ironic racism is only slightly more hyperbolic than Anglo-American rhetoric actually aimed at Irish people not so long ago. Such reservations though take a back seat when confronted with such energy as is on show.

Hay Fever star Kathy Rose O’Brien, sporting vintage 1960s costumes, makes a belated entrance as the writer who has been trying to keep the script going but has run out of ideas. The other characters are horrified when it is revealed that a lack of plot will kill a character. This leads to tremendous comic set-pieces, especially from an increasingly manic Darragh Kelly both rewriting and being rewritten, and the funniest joke of the entire play: “Could you not think of enough plot to keep him on? I mean how much does it take to keep an invisible terrier going anyway!?” Director Jo Mangan amps up the meta-textual chaos and absurdity admirably (leprechaun lineages are revealed) aided by a wonderfully self-destructing set from Ciaran Bagnall, in which one character hysterically gets trapped during renovations, while another hides for half the play.

Slattery’s Sago Saga takes a while to get going, and, hilariously enough, it’s only when Flann’s material runs out and Riordan starts doing At-Swim Two-Birds, with characters attacking each other via rewrites, that proceedings catch fire, but if this returns to Rathfarnham Castle for a third time it’s well worth catching.

3/5

September 28, 2011

Hay Fever

Director Patrick Mason expertly mines a classic comedy for laughs for the third summer in a row, with the help of regular collaborators including Marty Rea.

Designer Michael Pavelka furnishes a fabulously opulent 1920s country house set for Noel Coward’s comedy of deplorable manners, complete with absurdist touches like the classical bust above the door that bafflingly manages to hold a cigarette in its lips. Rea, a Mason regular after Arcadia and The Rivals, plays the spoilt toff Simon Bliss who invites femme fatale Myra to his country house for the weekend only to discover that his sister, father and mother have all invited a guest for the weekend too, and not told each other, never mind their put upon servant Clara. And that’s about as much plot as Coward bothers with, everything else is the interactions of the guests and their hosts. Highlights of these comically brusque encounters include a peeved Rea entreating his guest to have a seat by launching her in the direction of the sofa.

Ingrid Craigie Fassbenders as the retired actress matriarch Judith for whom all the world’s a stage, but who is continually wounded by references to her advanced years in connection to her inviting a star-struck gentleman caller. Beth Cooke essays a Cowardian rather than a Stoppardian teenager for a change as Sorel, the most self-aware of the Bliss family, who tries to rein in their bad manners but unconsciously seems to realise that such atrocious behaviour is just too much fun. Stephen Brennan is nicely scatterbrained as the novelist patriarch whose furious indignation, when his just finished book’s geographical accuracy is questioned, powers the final and funniest scene of the whole play. Coward’s play becomes progressively funnier as it proceeds, beginning with the guests arriving and being ignored by their hosts, before partner-swapping all round leads to romantic play-acting which terrifies the guests.

Stephen Swift, a blustering buffoon in Arcadia, here milks laughs as a simpering ninny (invited by Judith) whose over-enthusiastic delivery of the word ‘Rather’ repeatedly brought the house down. I’ve twice ripped screenwriter Mark O’Halloran for his devotion to misery so let me praise to the heights his turn as the diplomatist invited by Sorel. O’Halloran’s is by far the most stylised performance. His pencil ronnie, nervous smile, and exaggerated sitting movement and motions are almost commedia dell’arte, and his performance is comedic artistry. While Kathy Rose O’Brien’s flapper makes occasional hilarious outbursts against her treatment it is only Myra, the most acerbic guest, vampishly played by Jade Yourell, who forlornly rebukes the Bliss family. Behaving badly is so much fun that the Bliss family engage in deliriously enjoyable bickering oblivious to their guests nervously fleeing this madhouse.

Coward’s drawing-room comedy may not quite reach the heights of Wilde but such a feast of absurdist action and witty lines is to be relished.

4/5

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