Talking Movies

August 6, 2015

A Month in the Country on HeadStuff

A Month in the Country has had its run in the Gate extended to the 29th of August, so if you’re wondering whether to catch Ethan McSweeney’s production at the last moment here’s a teaser for my review for HeadStuff.

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Natalya (Aislin McGuckin) dominates the life of an 1850s Russian country house. She is married to the older Arkady (Nick Dunning), who seems oblivious to the platonic love affair she’s conducting with his erstwhile friend Michel (Simon O’Gorman). Natalya herself has a blind spot though, she fails to spot that her teenage ward Vera (Caoimhe O’Malley) has fallen for new tutor Aleksey (Dominic Thorburn). When it’s pointed out to her, and ever-visiting doctor Shpigelsky (Mark O’Regan) approaches her with a proposal of marriage for Vera from the aged Bolshintsov (Pat McGrath), Natalya becomes consumed by jealousy and starts plotting to marry off Vera to leave herself without a romantic rival for the young tutor’s affections. Michel is unable to prevent these machinations, while Arkady’s mother Anna (Barbara Brennan), Herr Schaff (Peter Gaynor), and Lizaveta (Ingrid Craigie) have never stood up to Natalya.

Click here to read the full review on HeadStuff.org.

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July 16, 2015

A Month in the Country

Ethan McSweeny directs Brian Friel’s version of Ivan Turgenev’s classic comedy-drama concerning the complicated romantic entanglements on a 19th Century Russian estate in high summer.

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Natalya (Aislin McGuckin) is married to the much older Arkady (Nick Dunning), a man too distracted with improvements to his estate to notice that his permanent houseguest and best friend Michel (Simon O’Gorman) is plainly in love with Natalya. Other residents of the Arkady house include bombastic German Herr Schaff (Peter Gaynor), long-suffering Lizaveta (Ingrid Craigie), Arkady’s formidable mother Anna (Barbara Brennan), new tutor Aleksey (Dominic Thorburn), and Natalya’s teenage ward Vera (Caoimhe O’Malley). Local doctor Shpigelsky (Mark O’Regan) doesn’t actually live there, but he might as well given that he spends as much time there as the eternally distracted bickering servants Matvey (Dermot Magennis) and Katya (Clare Monnelly). But when Vera falls in love with Aleksey and Natalya becomes madly infatuated with him, and blind to the counsel of Michel, the stage is set for betrayal, heartbreak, and reproach.

ADP Briggs has convincingly argued that the parallels in characters and relationships between A Month in the Country and Uncle Vanya are too close to be coincidental; Chekhov as we know him is unthinkable without Turgenev’s exemplar. Certainly a scene of total chaos in the final act as several characters wander into the drawing room to resolve several sub-plots anticipates Chekhov’s fondness for rattling several scenes through one set. Friel’s 1992 version gives the servants Northern Irish leanings against an RP aristocracy, and Bolshintsov (Pat McGrath) is amusingly rendered as a 1950s Irish bachelor farmer. An interesting echo is a devastated Arkady’s lament that he needed a measure of discretion from Natalya and Michel in order to successfully not know what he does know, which seems to speak to Judith’s speech in Aristocrats on how her circumscribed life is possible to endure so long as its limits are not hammered home. Oddly enough there are anticipations of another playwright Friel has translated, Ibsen, in Natalya’s manipulations and impulsive scheming. It’s as if Judge Brack had never cornered Hedda Gabler and she continued to relieve her boredom by insulting people, thwarting romances, and impulsively manipulating people.

Aislin McGuckin who had some imperious moments in Heartbreak House at the Abbey last summer rises to the challenge of such a figure, and alternates knowing vocal sultriness, with epic self-pity, blind fury, and vulnerable self-awareness. Natalya’s proto-Chekhovian soliloquies baffled 1850 audiences, but their psychological quality is very modern; although they can seem repetitious, especially if you saw Mark O’Rowe’s lean version of Ibsen in April. O’Gorman’s Michel is a study in defeat, while Dunning’s Arkady comes into his own after the interval as a comic character in his obliviousness who is tragic in that he needs to be oblivious to function. O’Malley slightly overdoes the girlishness of Vera, before maturing under the machinations of Natalya, while O’Regan hoovers up good lines as punning peasant made good Shpigelsky. Gaynor meanwhile lets rip in support. The expected silliness he suppressed in his Hedda Gabler character in April appears here in spades.

Francis O’Connor’s clever set and Peter O’Brien elegant costumes are the perfect visual palette for Turgenev’s tale of misplaced affections and quiet acceptances in a production of bittersweet comedy.

3/5

A Month in the Country continues its run at the Gate until August 22nd.

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.

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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.

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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