Talking Movies

January 27, 2016

You Never Can Tell

Conall Morrison directs his second consecutive Abbey Christmas show, but with a less fabled script than She Stoops to Conquer the result is less sparkling.

YNCT-prod-Image-5A-800x533

Struggling dentist Valentine (Paul Reid) extracts his first tooth from a paying customer with relief. Said paying customer Dolly (Genevieve Hulme-Beaman) invites him to lunch at her seaside hotel, a proposal loudly seconded by her equally forthright sibling Philip (James Murphy). Through a series of Shavian coincidences he ends up bringing his bitter landlord Mr Crampton (Eamon Morrissey) as his guest, and Mr Crampton turns out to be the husband that Mrs Clandon (Eleanor Methven) ran out on; and whose identity she has refused to reveal to her children Dolly, Philip, and Gloria (Caoimhe O’Malley) as none of their business… Luckily Finch McComas (Nick Dunning), an old friend of both warring spouses, is on hand to mediate. And redoubtable waiter Walter (Niall Buggy) is on hand to smooth over any marital strife and hurry along Valentine’s impetuous courtship of Gloria.

You feel Shaw would not remember specifically writing the two most memorable elements: Liam Doona’s set, a circular playing space encased by a moat with two drawbridges, and Walter given to bellowing “THANK YOU SIR!” at patrons from a distance of inches. The former is playful (and wonderfully matched by Conor Linehan’s jaunty incidental music), the latter begins baffling, becomes endearing, and ends hysterically. It also underpins Walter’s almost tearful acceptance of drinks orders in the finale lest he lose his waiting existential raison d’etre by sitting down. Elsewhere the direction is less sure. As regular theatre cohort Stephen Errity noted a very different version of this play exists in which, rather than Morrisey’s befuddled old geezer, that you feel sympathy for God love him, you get the Nietzschean Crampton (‘Dost visit with women? Remember thy whip!’) other characters recall.

There’s also, by Shaw’s own hand, Major Barbara, in which he successfully reworked in 1905 some of this 1897 material. Methven’s part thus becomes the even more acerbic Lady Britomart, which she played on this stage in 2013. O’Malley, who slightly overdid the girlishness in the Gate’s recent A Month in the Country, is magnificent here as imperious Gloria who goes comically to pieces under the pressure of Valentine’s impudent courtship and Crampton’s badgering. Reid is insouciance personified, while Dunning is amusingly overwhelmed, so Hulme-Beaman and Murphy provide the bombast. That is until Denis Conway appears… Joan O’Clery’s designs reach their apotheosis of spectacle in a costume ball, which allows Morrison again end on a musical number, and swishing about in a cape and  medico della peste is Conway as the lawyer Bohun who will sort out everything with epigrams. Shaw might as well have written ‘Enter Bohun. He Fassbenders’.

You Never Can Tell loses its way after the interval but Morrison’s general air of good humour sustains it until Shaw realises he needs some vim and introduces Bohun.

3/5

You Never Can Tell continues its run at the Abbey Theatre until the 6th of February.

Advertisements

September 16, 2015

Grounded

Major Barbara star Clare Dunne dominated the Project’s Space Upstairs in a performance of George Brant’s monologue Grounded as part of Tiger Dublin Fringe Festival.

image

Dunne is an unnamed fighter pilot, one of the USAF’s Top Guns; returning minarets in the Middle East to the state of the sands that surround them. Or at least presuming that she does, she’s always miles past her target by the time her missiles hit home. She’s cocky, one of the boys; an intimidating figure to most civilian men, until one man is attracted by her flight suit star-power. Finding herself pregnant she has to stop flying because her unborn daughter would not survive the G-force of the ejector seat being deployed. Three years later reporting for duty she is horrified to find herself permanently grounded. F-16s aren’t being made anymore, it’s all drones now; and she’s retrained for the US Chair Force. Relocating to Las Vegas she longs for the feeling of soaring lethally thru the blue sky…

Dunne’s accent initially startles; co-ordinates are somewhere around Wyoming by way of Texas; but it fits her swaggering character perfectly – a lover of AC/DC, a hater of hair-tossing girls, high on self-mythology, short on self-analysis. She is some kind of American archetype. Almost as bad as flying a drone and not having her own plane is not being a lone wolf anymore; now she has to fly a drone, not her drone, in shifts with other pilots, a teenager beside her controlling the camera, and a team of analysts in her ear okaying when she can strike – her individual lethal agency is gone. Killing is now pushing a button, represented by Dunne’s click of a pen. But now she’s forced to linger on the scenes of her kills… And soon the grey images on her monitor bleed into her home life.

Director Selina Cartmell stages the action on a long narrow platform with the audience facing each other across it. The only props are chairs which Dunne manically rearranges to create varied settings for the different scenes: a fight with her c/o, family drama, the boredom of reconnaissance, the tension of hovering surveillance, and the guilty thrill of danger-free drone-strikes. Davy Cunningham’s dazzling light design, which at one point loses Dunne in darkness while the audience looms up, is combined with a thunderous and brilliant use of AC/DC and Elvis. This is a topical piece, but the personal angst of adjusting to new modes of war is more dramatically interesting than the predictable crisis of conscience; which her husband urges her to leave at the base like his ‘clapping out’ at the end of a casino blackjack shift to clock out.

Brant loads the dramatic dice in this high-stakes Vegas game towards the inevitable hand-wringing, but the final image of Dunne’s warrior finally successfully clapping out remains devastating. ‘Boom…’ indeed.

5/5

October 6, 2014

Our Few and Evil Days

Ciaran Hinds and Sinead Cusack, so successful in Juno and the Paycock back in 2011, reunite as a more contemporary but equally troubled married couple; whose headstrong daughter brings home an equally superficially attractive paramour.

unnamed

Michael (Hinds) and Margaret (Cusack) are a loving couple in a Dublin suburb who no longer share a bedroom. The wordless opening of both acts sees Michael come downstairs to wake her up, and then put away mattress and pillows and switch the pull-out bed back to a sofa while she dresses upstairs. Yet their obvious devotion to each other is noticed and commented on by unexpected visitor Dennis (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor), who has been placed in the awkward position of meeting the parents solo by Adele (Charlie Murphy) running off to help her friend Belinda thru yet another crisis. Dennis inevitably makes a faux pas, about Adele’s absent brother, Jonathan; something teased out, along with Belinda’s crises, when Adele arrives for a very late dinner. But when Adele leaves again Dennis is convinced to stay over by Michael, and so when Dennis gets up for a drink of water he falls over Margaret; and their conversation about Jonathan becomes… disturbing.

Our Few and Evil Days is hard to review without ruining the effect of Mark O’Rowe’s mischievous structure. My lead-in was mischievous in mentioning O’Casey, because this is clearly in the vein of two other playwrights. The interrupting and sharply back and forth dialogue owes a debt to David Mamet, and the stellar cast, once they’ve warmed up to it (almost), embrace its rhythms with gusto. Meanwhile Harold Pinter’s comedy of menace rumbles under the attempts of naively nice guy Dennis to make a good impression. As director O’Rowe is also mischievous, casting Ian-Lloyd Anderson against type as Belinda’s abusive boyfriend Gary, by muting the physical menace he displayed in Major Barbara and instead playing up epic self-pity. This is a solidly middle-class setting courtesy of Paul Wills’ fully functioning set; with stairs behind the glass doors from the sitting room to the hall, a laundry area behind the kitchen, and a working sink (the final pre-Irish Water set design?).

Unfortunately such an impressive deeply layered set necessitates the removal of the first four rows of seats, so row E gets pasted up against the stage; and during Dennis and Margaret’s pivotal scene sitting at the kitchen table you are listening to a table emote because you can’t see Margaret’s face at all… O’Rowe’s play comprises three scenes either side of the interval; but where uncomfortable comedy dominates the first act, Freudian nightmares, shouting matches, and pop-analysis dominate the second. This gives the impression by the end that some characters have merely acted as plot devices to push the most important characters into dramatic screaming matches, and that much of the comedy has been a red herring. This doesn’t really matter though when actors of the calibre of Hinds, Cusack, Murphy and Vaughan-Lawlor are giving it their all. Vaughan-Lawlor clearly relishes playing against ‘Nidge’, Cusack is endearingly earthy, Hinds is sympathetically conflicted, and Murphy impressively alternates between wounded and wounding.

O’Rowe’s script has a fearful symmetry, great comedy, and touches on true darkness, but is perhaps a bit too full of misdirection. It’s possible to see future productions simply fall apart with lesser actors.

4/5

Our Few and Evil Days continues its run at the Abbey until the 25th of October.

August 23, 2014

Heartbreak House

If it’s summer it must be Shaw at the Abbey. Annabelle Comyn, who helmed Pygmalion and Major Barbara, is replaced by Roisin McBrinn, but Nick Dunning returns for more Fassbendering.

art6

Ellie Dunn (Lisa Dwyer Hogg) has been invited to the Shotover residence by Hesione (Kathy Kiera Clarke), who then neglects her entirely. The irascible Captain Shotover (Mark Lambert) entertains Hesione’s guest, while disparaging to Ellie his other daughter Lady Ariadne Utterword (Aislin McGuckin), who thus arrives home after 20 years’ absence to a cold welcome. Receiving a baffling welcome is Ellie’s father, Mazzini Dunn (Chris McHallem), who Captain Shotover insists is an old shipmate who stole from him, but let bygones be bygones. Mazzini is attempting to marry Ellie off to his benefactor, vulgar capitalist Alfred ‘Boss’ Mangan (Don Wycherley), but Hesione is determined to marry Ellie off to her true love; except that unfortunately he turns out to be Hesione’s own husband Hector Hushabye (Nick Dunning). Add in Ariadne’s smitten brother-in-law Randall Utterword (Marcus Lamb) for universal delirious heartbreak.

At the interval I thought that Clarke was over-playing the eccentricity of Hesione, and that Wycherley was engaged in some oblique Python tribute with Mangan’s belly as bloated as M. Creosote and his delivery as hoarse and mentally exhausted as a Gumby. But after the interval I realised they were merely the advance troops for Shaw’s assault on realism. Heartbreak House positions Shaw far closer to Coward than I’d ever previously guessed. The spoilt aristocrats who ignore their guests, who get nervous, and then get some gumption, while romantic dalliances switch between partners with dizzying speed, must have been an influence on Hay Fever. But after the interval, as Lady Ariadne comes into her own, Shaw toys with Freudian complexes and zinging one-liners in a comedy increasingly far removed from any emotional verisimilitude and on its way to pure absurdism.

McBrinn, like Comyn before her, finds unexpected modernity in a 1920 script. The nautical-styled house by McBrinn’s Perve cohort Alyson Cummins is a wonderful creation, with a sliding floor effect startlingly used for a hypnosis sequence. That hypnosis leads to wonderful slapstick, but a sinister undercurrent finds release in the impressive bombing finale conjured by Paul Keogan’s flashing lights and Philip Stewart’s pyrotechnic sounds. My fellow academic Graham Price is not a fan of Shaw solving the world’s problems in four Acts, and did not appreciate that late lurch into political satire of the ruling class. But while Mangan’s entrepreneurship may be suspect, it cannot detract from the hilarity of sequences like catching an irksome burglar. McHallem’s performance is a nice complement to his Major Barbara turn, Lambert and Dunning Fassbender madly, and Hogg and McGuckin’s characters become impressively commanding.

Heartbreak House’s final lines and visual effect are chilling in this centenary summer and they startle by resembling something Joan Littlewood could have devised.

3/5

Heartbreak House continues its run at the Abbey until the 13th of September.

February 19, 2014

The Vortex

Director Annabelle Comyn forsakes the Abbey and Shaw for the Gate and Coward in this cutting 1920s comedy with an unexpectedly serious and intimate finale.

exam18022014thevortex_large

The Vortex opens with the sensible Helen (Fiona Bell) and acerbic Pawnie (Mark O’Regan), waiting in an opulent drawing room for vain and apparently ageless socialite Florence (Susannah Harker). Coward follows Chekhov’s lead in having a whirl of characters pass thru one location as we meet unsmiling servant Preston (Andrea Kelly), fatuous singer Clara (Rebecca O’Mara), and, after Florence’s belated arrival, her devoted young lover Tom (Ian Toner), her defeated aged husband David (Simon Coury), her histrionic coke-stoked pianist son Nicky (Rory Fleck Byrne), and Nicky’s calculating flapper fiancé Bunty (Katie Kirby)… A Freudian frisson instantly shivers between Florence and Bunty over Nicky’s undivided love, and when it transpires Bunty and Tom knew each other intimately years before the scene is set for emotional carnage when all concerned up sticks to Florence’s country house for a Charleston-and-cocktails fuelled weekend party.

Comyn’s regular designer Paul O’Mahony provides an elegant crescent of mirrors and walls which slide along to reveal a staircase for the second act in the country, which begins with a literal bang as Chahine Yavroyan’s dramatically surging lighting design provides the effect of old flashbulbs for keepsake pictures of the couples dancing. Comyn showed in The House her skill at blocking large chaotic ensembles, and 8 people bounce around the stage to the over-pumped gramophone recording of the Charleston in Philip Connaughton’s choreographed party, during which Nicky’s coke addiction becomes evident to Helen. Byrne is marvellous as the highly-strung Nicky, trying to overcome his terrible upbringing, while his self-absorbed mother makes a fool of herself as Tom and Bunty move closer together. Toner is impressive as the slowly awakening Tom, while Kirby makes Bunty somehow both cold and right.

O’Regan Fassbenders delightfully as Pawnie, aided by hoovering up the play’s best lines. It’s tempting to link Coward to Waugh and say the trick of 1920s dialogue is the casual use of ridiculously hyperbolic words. Bright Young Things only ever dub things, no matter how trivial, as ‘ghastly, gruesome, sick-making, beastly, horrid, deathly’ or ‘heavenly, divine, sublime’. Well-spoken but OTT-phrased bad behaviour became Coward’s trade-in-stock but, while the curtain anticipates Hay Fever’s flight of guests, this is a more serious work. The third act focuses on Nicky’s insistence, on the verge of a nervous breakdown, that Florence abandons her obsession with her continuing youth and instead acknowledges her blame in his failings as a person. But this once controversial scene echoes Hamlet and Gertrude’s bedroom contretemps, and leaves us hungry for an aftermath that is never analysed – to dissatisfying effect.

The Vortex may have been the ‘theatrical shocker of the Jazz Age’, but what shocks now is not its sex and drugs but its cavalier dismissal of its ensemble.

3/5

The Vortex continues its run at the Gate until the 17th of March.

September 19, 2013

Major Barbara

Annabelle Comyn directs her third summer show in a row on the Abbey stage and, following 2011’s Pygmalion, makes a welcome return to Bernard Shaw.

Paul-McGann-in-the-Abbey-Theatre-s-production-of-Major-Barbara-by-Bernard-Shaw--Directed-by-Annabelle-Comyn--Runs-until-21-September--Pic-Ros-Ka

Shaw’s 1905 play begins with the imperious Lady Britomart (Eleanor Methven) initiating her shallow son Stephen (Killian Burke) into the shameful history of his millionaire father, arms manufacturer Andrew Undershaft (Paul McGann). Lady Britomart intends to tap Undershaft for marriage settlements for their daughters Sarah (Liz Fitzgibbon), engaged to upper class twit Charles Lomax (Aonghus Og McAnally), and Barbara (Clare Dunne), engaged to bohemian Greek scholar Adolphus Cusins (Marty Rea). She also hopes, by inviting Undershaft to meet his children for the first time in decades, to spark some paternal sentiment in him so that he will abandon the Undershaft tradition of disinheriting the lawful heirs in favour of settling the massive arms concern on a foundling. The unrepentant Undershaft, however, is more impressed by his daughter Major Barbara; who he makes swear to visit his arms factory if he visits her Salvation Army shelter. But which of their competing philosophies will overcome the other?

Major Barbara is dominated by the character of Undershaft and McGann rises boldly to the challenge. His entrance into Lady Britomart’s library, absolutely unsure as to which of the three men in it is his son, is expertly prolonged, and his delivery of his unscrupulous politico-economic philosophy jaded without being cynical; his very sincerity hinting at the need for new energy which the steely Barbara suddenly offers to him. Dunne’s fervour as Barbara, with undertones of despair, complements McGann’s nuance, while Methven Fassbenders as the Wildean matriarch insulting her son and prospective son-in-laws with arch put-downs. Burke does a fine job of Stephen’s indignation shading into admiration as he sees his father’s works, but comedic honours go to Aonghus Og McAnally and his repeated contention that whatever’s being discussed involves a good deal of tommyrot. Talking Movies favourite Rea makes his shady character a worthy foil to Undershaft, alternating between ecstatic acceptance and mulish rebellion.

But, far more than Pygmalion, this play engages with the poor of London. The elegant library, by Comyn’s regular set designer Paul O’Mahony, loses its refinement to become the facade of the Salvation Army shelter. Shaw presents the poor who despise being reliant on charity (Chris McHallem’s defeated Peter Shirley), the poor who play up their Christianity to cynically con charity (Emmet Kirwan’s sly Bronterre O’Brien Price), and the poor who only Barbara would tackle (Ian Lloyd Anderson’s truly menacing Bill Walker). This is a London haunted by the winter depression of 1886, and, even as Barbara and Walker clash rhetorically and physically over his rejection of salvation, the visiting Undershaft instructs the attentive Cusins in the employers’ interest in the Army keeping the poor content, but in their place. When Undershaft offers a massive donation to Mrs Baines (Fiona Bell) to help keep open the shelter, Barbara resigns rather than usefully employ tainted money.

And so the final act finds the library transforming into a munitions factory with a massive weapon as its centrepiece as Undershaft attempts to uphold the Undershaft tradition while yet employing his fiery daughter… Major Barbara runs for nearly three hours and is a dense play. Is Shaw satirising the Salvation Army as the acme of religious enthusiasm that horrified staid Victorians? Or merely challenging the Army to convert the rich because they will be more sincere as they do not need their charity? And then there’s the grenade he throws in of personal integrity getting in the way of the greater good. Does Barbara have a duty to accept money made from wrongdoing in order to serve the greater good? Given recent resignations of conscience and Trevor Sargeant’s 2007 resignation to allow his party enter government this is not an abstract Antigone dilemma. Undershaft’s seductive honesty is very Shavian, if he doesn’t believe something he won’t pretend to for the sake of social niceties; and so he magnificently flourishes the fact that his industry controls government. But are his actions consistent with his philosophy or is he as impetuous as Barbara, so Shaw’s calling for compromise not mad idealism?

These knotty questions can’t really be answered, and so this production of Major Barbara is to be commended for expertly maintaining the comedic undertone in its intense examination of the ever-relevant clash between private integrity and the public good.

4/5

Major Barbara continues its run at the Abbey until the 21st of September.

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.