Class at the Bush Theatre review ***

Class

Bush Theatre, 15th May 2019

Good intention. Examine the way the education process, despite the best intentions of those who operate it, can fail those who start with least advantage. Interesting central conceit. Take the parents whose son is the subject of their meeting with his teacher, and show them as their child selves. And some fine observation on class, expectation, educational prejudice and the language that educators use. Ultimately though both the Tourist and the SO weren’t completely convinced by the play’s apparent conclusions and by some of the narrative leaps taken along the way.

Dubliners Brian (Stephen Jones) and Donna (Sarah Morris) are the estranged parents of Jayden who have been called in to meet his teacher Ray McCafferty (Will O’Connell). Taxi driver Brian arrives early and his discomfort with environment, (this was his old school), and situation, (he is conscious about his own educational achievement), is palpable. Ray, in his eminently reasonable primary school teacher way, does his best to reassure him. Donna arrives and Ray explains that Jayden has fallen behind in his literary and might need some help, perhaps including the intervention of an educational psychologist. So far so awkward. We then switch to Jayden and Kaylie (again played by Stephen Jones and Sarah Morris) in a “homework club” with Mr McCafferty, attempting to engage their attention. When we switch back to Brian and Donna, after Ray exits to get the required paperwork, they discuss what to do with Jayden and show signs of the affection that still inhabits their relationship. When McCafferty returns however, and Jayden’s issue shifts from a learning “difference” to a “difficulty” and even possible dyslexia, and even a potential catalyst for “delinquency”, things start to kick off as his botched attempts to intervene on behalf of another pupil are revealed, the reasons for the break up of Brian and Donna are rehearsed and both men’s tempers spiral out of control.

A couple more plot ratchets and we’re done. Left with the slightly unsatisfactory feeling that writers (and directors) Iseult Golden and David Horan felt compelled to privilege dramatic tension over further character development. I can see why but, given the quality of the dialogue, laced with humour, in the first half, to us it seemed something of a waste. On the other hand it isn’t easy to see where they might have otherwise gone with the story and the fear of “fizzle out” is understandably. deeply ingrained in the creative writing psyche. Given successful runs in Dublin, Galway and Edinburgh, it is perhaps unsurprising that cast and direction is so accomplished and Maree Kearns set and costume design will be familiar to any parent and teacher either side of the Irish Sea. (The Tourist’s ample behind would often inadvertently take a tiny chair with it after parent teacher meetings at the local primary).

Cyprus Avenue at the Royal Court Theatre review ****

Cyprus Avenue

Royal Court Theatre, 4th March 2019

From one black comedy which imagines taboo breaking violence to make a political point (here big as well as small “p”) to another. Having seen the Ladykiller from The Thelmas at the Vault Festival it was off next evening with the SO, MS and MSC to see David Ireland’s much lauded play about sectarianism on its return to the Royal Court after a run in NYC.

Now I had originally signed up to see Cyprus Avenue on its first outing at the RC in 2016 but had to can it due to a diary clash. Didn’t know anything about David Ireland at that time so was a weensy bit peeved when the uniformly excellent reviews came through, especially after seeing The End of Hope, one of Mr Ireland’s earlier plays, which is one of the sharpest and funniest hours of theatre I have seen on stage in the last few years. So to say I was looking forward to this was an understatement. In fact maybe my expectations were a little too high. Don’t get me wrong. Cyprus Avenue delivers on so many levels. Not least the opportunity to see Stephen Rea on stage. Role for role Mr Rea might just be the most principled actor on Irish, British (or any other) stage and screen. He just doesn’t seem to take dodgy parts for money. To say the role of Eric in Cyprus Avenue could have been written for him is the understatement of understatements. But this is not quite the perfect play.

Actually maybe the understatement of understatements is to say that Eric is not a nice man. The play begins with him shuffling on stage into a nondescript room where he is interviewed by a black woman psychiatrist, (the excellent Ronke Adekoluejo, who, like the rest of the cast, has played the role in Dublin and NYC). Eric’s shockingly direct sexism and racism is quickly revealed. But this is not the half of it as it we flashback to Eric’s blunt treatment of wife Bernie (Andrea Irvine) and daughter Julie (Amy Molloy). And his realisation that his baby granddaughter Mary-May is, in fact, Gerry Adams, Republican, and the leader of Sinn Fein, (until last year). Not just a resemblance. He thinks his daughter really is Gerry Adams, complete with beard and glasses. For Eric, a diehard Unionist, this is anathema. His relationship with wife and daughter disintegrates and he even recruits a hardman, albeit comically incompetent, UVF paramilitary to “resolve” his dilemma. The end is shocking as Eric is forced to assert his bigoted identity, in the face of multiple threats, in the most violent way imaginable.

This is then a black comedy through which David Ireland skewers the lunacy of sectarian politics in Northern Ireland and, by implication, elsewhere. Eric’s religious and political values are so deeply ingrained that hate of Catholics and Republicans, the “Fenians” in his words, is his only currency. His warped logic is mined for laughs but the point is deadly serious. What makes the performance of the crumpled Stephen Rea so remarkable is that, through it all, he still makes Eric recognisably human. Not sympathetic of course. Just very real, his views to him are entirely logical and reasonable. You feel that if he were ever to abandon the certainties of religion and politics his entire psych would collapse in front of us. With a preposterous bunch of “British” religious and political zealots in the form pf the Democratic Unionist Party currently trying to hold our executive, and therefore legislature, and country, to ransom, the play could hardly be more relevant.

This is David Ireland’s metier. using uncomfortable comedy, and shocking violence, to interrogate, and maybe upend, our understanding, expectations and preconceptions of key political questions: sectarianism, identity, race, sexuality and culture. In his first play, What The Animals Say, this is filtered through acting and football, in Everything Between Us the setting is a Northern Ireland Truth and Reconciliation Commission, in the End of Hope, sex and celebrity through a surreal one-night stand, (as is the similar Most Favoured), in Half a Glass of Water, male rape and abuse, (Stephen Rea playing the abuser on its original outing), loyalist paramilitaries again in Yes, So I Said Yes, an age gap relationship in Can’t Forget About You, sectarianism once again in Trouble and Shame, and abuse, religion and homophobia in Summertime.

The sharp eyed amongst you will have noticed a pattern here with the same ideas, situations, issues and characters recurring through his plays. There is I suppose a risk of repetition and self-parody in all this “offensiveness”; indeed I gather that his poorly reviewed play, I Promise You Sex and Violence, was guilty of exactly that, though the title suggests Mr Ireland is alive to the possibility. Senseless violence and the urge to provoke can induce a reaction from the easily shocked or the tiresomely worldly but also even from those, like the Tourist, more open to this sort of caper. There were indeed one or two moments in Cyprus Avenue where I did think the point had been made and it was time to move on. MS was of a similar mind, whilst the SO rightly observed a few drops in pace, and MSC was a little nonplussed by all the savagery really .

Yet for all this duplication the provocation works, the dark, ironic parody is often very funny and the dialogue, in passages, sparks. Ulster American, his latest play, is returning to the Traverse in Edinburgh after selling out last year and, once again, dividing critics with its content. I suspect, one way or another, I will end up seeing it. Mr Ireland treads a line, no doubt, with the subjects he explores and with the way he explores them, but I would contend that is, amongst many other things, the purpose of drama. Trying to work out if people are laughing for the right or wrong reasons isn’t really going to work. As ever, in all art, it is the intention of the creator that is paramount.

Cyprus Avenue just could have done with being a little tighter, less overwritten, offering a little more surprise. On the other hand, for example in the scene where Eric and Slim, (the superb Chris Corrigan), meet, the lines are just so darned good, even when they say essentially the same thing, that I can see why Mr Ireland keeps serving them up. The way their mutual indignation at the backsliding of others in their community is captured, in that odd, overly eloquent tone of florid aggression, is delicious. For me, Martin McDonagh’s The Lieutenant of Inishmore, remains the definitive piss-take of sectarianism and is, line for line, funnier but it is not difficult to see why CA has proved a sell-out.

I assume Vicky Featherstone didn’t have to make too much in the way of adjustments to her sure-footed direction in moving the play from Upstairs too Downstairs at the RC and that Lizzie Clachlan’s spartan set was similarly re-used. The text calls for a muzak version of Van Morrison’s song from which the play’s title is drawn, the post part of East Belfast, but I don’t remember this. Perhaps because that might just be the most horrifying thing of all. Just joking. Anyone I have just put Astral Weeks, the album from which it is drawn on. Still as perfect as when it first came out in 1968. Doesn’t matter how grumpy he gets he is still The Man.

Stones in His Pockets at the Rose Kingston review ***

Stones in His Pockets

Rose Theatre Kingston, 1st March 2019

Like Martin McDonagh’s The Cripple of Inishmaan, and written at the same time, Marie Jones’s Stones in His Pockets is a comedy which examines the impact when a Hollywood film crew descends on a small Irish community. But where one is sharp, dark and intriguing, this, for all of the sorrow at the heart of the play, is a much slighter affair, and can’t seem to make up its mind whether it is satirises or celebrating the outsider view of Ireland it examines. Maybe it was just the production, but the two hander structure, with both actors jumping incessantly between characters, seems to animate the broader, physical humour at the expense of the message about tired stereotyping which, I think, Marie Jones is trying to get across.

Not that it wasn’t funny in places. Though not as funny for me as it seemed to be for others. Some of the audience at the Rose were doubled up in mirth, others sat near stony-faced. Still there was pretty enthusiastic applause at the end for the efforts of Owen Sharpe (Jake) and Kevin Trainor (Charlie), which was very well deserved. Yet I had expected something more given the reception the play was afforded in its early years as it snowballed from its Belfast Lyric premiere, through a community tour, Edinburgh Fringe, the Tricycle and then into the West End for an award winning run of three years. Though perhaps this reflected the combined talents of actors Sean Campion and Conleth Hill (last seen by me steadfastly refusing to be out-acted by no less than Imelda Staunton in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf). It has been revived on numerous occasions in Ireland, the UK and around the world. I even note that Kare Conradi, the AD of the Norwegian Ibsen Theatre (who was over here for The Lady From the Sea a couple of weeks ago), did a stint in a production over there. If it works in the land of Ibsen then who am I to argue.

Charlie Conlon and Jake Quinn are two friends in a rural town in County Kerry who sign up as extras for the Hollywood film. Charlie, on the run from his failed business, has written a script he dreams will be made into a film. Jake has recently returned from NYC, knows everyone in the village, and is besotted by the star of the movie, Caroline. The producers, directors and crew only care about getting the film done on time with plausibility, plot and accents taking a back seat. The “colourful” locals are initially excited at the arrival of Hollywood but soon tire of the glamour, and things take a turn for the worse when one of the villagers, druggie Sean, commits suicide after being humiliated by Caroline in the local pub. The flashpoint is Sean’s funeral. Jake and Charlie get the chance to pitch the script but it is rejected by the film’s for being insufficiently romantic and commercial.

Easy enough to see the tension between the Hollywood view of Ireland and reality. Martin McDonagh takes more direct aim at the liberties taken by Robert J Flaherty in his “documentary” Man of Aran in 1934, but the intent is similar. This touring co-production (with Bath Theatre Royal), is directed by Lindsay Posner, who has delivered it in NYC recently, and is as safe a pair of hands as it is possible to get, whether in classic or lighter theatrical fare (Mamet, Miller, Ben Johnson and Noises Off being particular highlights in my book). Peter McKintosh’s set is your standard Irish outdoorsy caper (see Rae Smith’s bigger budget version for the NT’s Translations last year), with the two actors manipulating a large chest to simulate the indoor scenes.

Moderately entertaining. For sure. Thought provoking. Nope, Fraid not.

A Skull in Connemara at the Oldham Coliseum review ****

A Skull in Connemara

Oldham Coliseum, 28th February 2019

Two successive nights. Two revivals of comedies looking at the nature of “Irishness”. Martin McDonagh’s A Skull in Connemara and Marie Jones Stones in His Pockets. Which did the Tourist prefer? McDonagh’s black comedy of course. Bit trickier to get to, train to Manchester, then an admittedly convenient tram to Oldham on a wet and windy evening, vs a 10 minute walk, but effort rewarded.

Thanks in large part to Chris Lawson who is the Acting Artistic Director (an entertaining if accidental play on words) at the Oldham Coliseum, an alumni of the Almeida and was responsible for this revival. Based on his work here, and the intelligent and accessible programme he has devised for this season, an in-house revival of Barney Norris’s Visitors, co-productions of Moira Buffini’s Handbagged and the musical The Hired Man, and touring productions of Approaching Empty (from the Kiln and worth seeing) and Charlotte Keatley’s local, and now global, smash hit My Mother Said I Never Should, if I were the Board of the OC I would give him the permanent job. Good people of Oldham and Greater Manchester I enjoin you to pitch up for any, or all, of these entertainments. You won’t be disappointed. I might join you for Visitors if I can rustle up the train fare.

I have bored you enough before on this site about the genius of Martin McDonagh’s plays so I’ll pipe down this time. Suffice to say A Skull in Connemara, first performed in 1997, was the second of the Leenane trilogy after The Beauty Queen of Leenane and before The Lonesome West and may be gets slightly overlooked compared to its peers, the later plays and the two produced plays in the Aran Islands trilogy, (the first of which, The Cripple of Inishmaan would provide an even more fruitful compassion with Stones in His Pockets – same conceit, Hollywood comes to rural Ireland – and both written in 1996).

Too often the words “black humour” or “black comedy” are the precursor to an entertainment that is neither dark nor funny. Not here though. This is quite literally graveyard humour. There is normally an expanding kaleidoscope of high (Synge and Beckett) and low (cop shows) culture references in MM’s work. Here surely Elsinore and everyone’s favourite, overly literal grave-digger has been transported to the west coast of Ireland. Loner Mick Dowd (John O’Dowd), amongst other things, is tasked each year with digging up and disposing of the skeletons in the local churchyard to make room for new entrants. His wife, who died seven years earlier, is interred there but, when he finally gets to her exhumation, she has disappeared. Bad news, especially when the village rumours is he bumped her off in the first place, so the story goes, for burning his scrambled eggs. He is assisted in his work by the local gobshite Mairtin Hanlon (Liam Heslin), whose chain smoking brother Thomas (Griffin Stevens) just happens to be the bumptious, corrupt local Garda, role models Starsky and Hutch. The cast is rounded off by the Hanlon’s elderly gran, Maryjohnny Rafferty (Jenny Lee), prone, like Mick to a shot of poteen, to tittle-tattle, cheating at bingo and bigotry.

Now for all his playful meta conversions, inversions and reversions (especially in the “fairy-tale plays” and the films), MM knows how to work structure, plot, character and rhythm. With just four characters in an isolated location, turned in on itself, where everyone’s business and history is shared, MM creates even more opportunity than usual to explore the personal dramas and relationships within the world he has created. Little does she know that he knows the she knows …. And then what do we know? All four characters have secrets of a more or less heinous kind.. Though this is still, by MM’s standards, a pretty “straight” play within the overall literal metaphor of “digging up the past”. He does treat us to some of the devices we have come to know and love: moral instability, dark, ironic humour and plot twists but this is gentler than many of the later plays.

Apart from the Tarantino-esque bone crushing scene choreographed to the sound of Dana’s All Kinds of Everything, Mairtin’s juvenile fascination with violence (road deaths, children drowned in slurry, boiling hamsters as well as his description of a bottle attack he perpetrated to revenge a slight oh how. trainers), his head wound and Thomas attempting to strangle Mick. Around this “comic” aggression though is some fairly good-natured verbal sparring, intended to upend “Oirish” stereotypes but not really with the vehemence, subversion and unpredictability of the later plays and films. The ending is satisfying ambiguous. We never find out whether Mick was responsible for his wife’s death but it feels like he might.

Katie Scott’s set, alongside the twilighted lighting design of Stewart Bartlett and resonant sound of Dan Bottomley, and a large helping of dry ice, is largely responsible for conjuring up a sense of chilly mystery and connection with the (Celtic) past. It slips seamlessly between graveyard (with falling crucifix looming out of the shadows) and the interior of Mick’s cottage. John O’Dowd, who was excellent as Jim in ETT’s touring production of Conor McPherson’s The Weir (another play which springs from the same place, not literally mind, as ASIC and Stones in His Pockets and was also premiered in 1997), brings the right tone of bluff pensive inscrutability to Mick and Liam Heslin’s explosive Martin seems unable to rein in his wild, morbid impulses in the face of repeated incomprehension. Griffin Stevens shows Thomas as a man supremely confident in his own inabilities. Jenny Lee understandably seems to take great pleasure in serving up Maryjohnny’s choicer acerbic lines.

Mining MM’s texts too insistently for laughs can play up the cartoonish tone at the expense of the darker overtones and pointed referencing . Not here though. Mr Lawson gets the balance right, the four characters are larger than life but the interplay between them is convincing and the simultaneous mocking and celebration of the form is well observed. I would have preferred the play ran straight through, and a fuller house would have served the cast better, but if this is what a portent of what is to come, in this very friendly space (I managed to get lost, don’t ask), then Manchester theatre-goers have even more to celebrate.

The Silver Tassie at the Barbican review *****

The Silver Tassie

Barbican Hall, 10th November 2018

  • Mark-Anthony Turnage (composer)
  • Amanda Holden (libretto)
  • Ashley Riches – Harry
  • Sally Matthews – Susie
  • Brindley Sherratt – The Croucher
  • Claire Booth – Mrs Foran
  • Marcus Farnsworth – Teddy
  • Alexander Robin Baker – Barney
  • Louise Alder – Jessie
  • Susan Bickley – Mrs Heegan
  • Mark le Brocq – Sylvester
  • Anthony Gregory – Dr Maxwell/Staff Officer
  • Andre Rupp – Corporal
  • Finchley Children’s Music Group
  • BBC Singers
  • BBC Symphony Orchestra
  • Ryan Wrigglesworth – conductor
  • Kenneth Richardson – stage director

B*gger. B*gger. B*gger. B*gger. B*gger. I never saw Mark-Anthony Turnage’s second full scale opera when it was first performed in early 2000 at the ENO. On the basis of this semi-staged performance from the BBCSO as part of the In Remembrance weekend this was a terrible omission on my part for it is an extraordinary work both musically, and, given the strength of Amanda Holden’s libretto, dramatically. It is intensely powerful and moving even without a full set and staging. It beggars belief that it has not been revived since 2002, (and that it missed out on a run in Dallas thanks to political sensitivities). 

It is constructed as a symphony in four acts, Home, War, Hospital and Dance. Harry Heegan is about to return to the family flat after a football match with his best mate Barney and girlfriend Jessie. Mum and Dad are intensely proud of their son who is about to head off to the war. Next door neighbour Susie joins the party, banging on about God. Mrs Foran from upstairs also turns up escaping abusive husband Teddy. The Silver Tassie, a cup with much significance appears, the men go to war full of optimism. The War act is primarily choral preceded by the mythic Croucher, representing, I think, the war dead and intoning Old Testament-ish doom. An officer complains at the doctors in the Red Cross station. A football game is delayed as the battle begins. The story then switches to the Hospital where an angry Harry is now paralysed, Teddy blinded and Jessie, who refuses to see Harry, is now coupled up with Barney, who saved Harry’s life. The final act sees Harry and Teddy spit out their pain and bitterness at those who still have their futures at the communal dance. 

The opera is based on Sean O’Casey’s eponymous plan and it is therefore we who have to thank for the gripping drama. Whilst it is never made explicit, O’Casey intended that the Heegan family, and the rest of the community, should hail from the East Wall, a working class district of Dublin, adding further pungency to the message of the play (and opera) because, at that time, Ireland was still part of the UK and the republican movement was divided on whether the country should be involved in the war. So as some young men like Harry, Barney and Teddy headed off to war others prepared for insurrection at home. 

O’Casey’s play was rejected by WB Yeats, then head honcho at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, when it was submitted in 1928, reflecting its political sensitivity. This was after the success of his first three major plays, The Shadow of a Gunman, Juno and the Paycock and The Plough and the Stars. So it premiered at the Apollo in London’s West End. There have been a fair few plays which rail at the futility of war and its consequences on the individuals who fight in it, but I doubt many match the raw power of The Silver Tassie. 

So Amanda Holden, (to be clear not the airhead judge on BGT), and M-AT had something monumental to work with. Even so, and in no way intending to downplay Ms Holden’s contribution which provides M-AT with multiple opportunities to show off his trademark stylistic jagged juxtapositions, it is the score that takes the breath away. M-AT had already shown his dramatic flair in his first opera Greek, and his compositional skill with orchestral pieces such as Three Screaming Popes, Momentum, Drowned Out, Dispelling the Fears and Silent Cities, especially when it came to percussion and brass, but The Silver Tassie is on another level.

The symphonic structure is inspired by mentor Hans Werner Henze’s The Bassarids, with the first act setting out the main ideas and themes, the second the Adagio slow movement, brought to life by the large scale choral scenes (echoing the more Expressionist feel of the act in SO’C’s play), the third a Scherzo and the last act a “dance” finale with “off stage” band. This structure offers rhythmic backbone and plenty of tunes derived from song, (including Robert Burns’s own Silver Tassie), and dance, as well as repeated motifs, which make it easy to follow and show off MA-T’s uncanny ability to capture the emotional interior of the characters. There are episodes of rich orchestral colour but there are also plenty of more economic orchestration.  The score should give the singers plenty of space, but just to make sure the cast were miked, (though M-AT, a couple of rows in front of me, needed to dash up to the sound desk to get the balance right early on).  The second and fourth acts are up there with the best I have ever heard on an opera stage. Even allowing for the fact that this wasn’t an opera stage. 

Sometimes this semi-staging lark can leave singers looking a little awkward unsure of how much to commit to performance versus voice. Costuming can also, sometimes, appear incongruous. Not here though, at east once the first act go going. There were some outstanding vocal performances, notably for me from Sally Matthews and Claire Booth, and Marcus Farnsworth as Teddy was very persuasive. But baritone Ashley Riches as Harry, even from my two perches (side stalls first half, back of circle second), was bloody marvellous not just in his singing but also in the way, pre and post wheelchair, he projected Harry’s exuberance and then his pain into the whole auditorium. 

Now I have nothing to compare it to but, given just how amazing this was, I have to assume that Ryan Wrigglesworth and the BBCSO, and the BBC Singers and Finchley Children’s Music Group (complete with ensemble writhing) got as close as possible to the heart of the music. 

You can listen to it for a couple more weeks on BBC Radio Opera on 3. Do yourself a favour and do so. 

And can I beg the ENO to find a way and time to revive this. With Mr Wrigglesworth on the podium. I will chip in a few quid if it helps. 

Chekhov’s First Play at the Battersea Arts Centre review ***

Chekhov_1898_by_Osip_Braz

Chekhov’s First Play

Battersea Arts Centre, 5th November 2018

Some venerable theatre grandees have had a crack a knocking Anton Chekhov’s first play into shape. The venerable Lev Dodin and The Maly Theatre presented a version based on Chekhov’s own text, albeit with nine characters chopped out and a jazz band inserted, which got it down to four hours from Chekhov’s original five hours plus. Based on the Maly Theatre’s latest visit to London I would imagine that was still something of a trial. (Life and Fate at the Theatre Royal Haymarket review ***). As it happens AC wrote it in 1878, aged 19, for Russian acting superstar Maria Yermolova,  diva of the Maly Theatre, but she, not unreasonably, rejected it given its rambling nature and it didn’t get published until 1923.

Chekhov obsessive Michael Frayn conjured up an adaptation in 1984, entitled Wild Honey which has had a few work-outs including at the Hampstead Theatre last year. David Hare similarly produced an adaptation for the Almeida in 2001 and it was this text, Platonov, which formed part of the Young Chekhov trilogy alongside Ivanov, AC’s first “proper” full length play, and The Seagull. the first of the four classics, in the Chichester Festival Theatre production of 2015 which then transferred to the National Theatre.

And it was this, and only this of the three, that I saw, in the spirit of curiosity, in 2016. There was a lot to like, especially in the performances of James McArdle as our eponymous Hamletian hero and Nina Sosanya’s Anna and Olivia Vinall’s Sofya who play his two main love interests, as well as, Jonathan Kent’s keen direction. But I can’t say I was bowled over. This is in part might reflect the fact that I didn’t get to experience the transition towards the multifaceted tragi-comedy of The Seagull via the ripe drama of Ivanov. It might also be that, even stripped down, Platonov in this version is just a bit samey. Our schoolteacher has charisma for sure, a worldly man trapped in a less than worldly place, who thinks a great deal and has the wit and looks to take on his babe magnet mantle. But he is also a bit of a dick, drinks too much and probably deserves what he gets at the hands of Sofya. All the material and characters which populated AC’s later world are present, but not necessarily correct.

This then is the play which Irish company Dead Centre have chosen to present in Chekhov’s last play. Only they have got it down to 90 minutes. And I think I can safely say that AC’s role as one of the daddy’s of naturalism was not in their playbook. This instead is a wild deconstruction, not just of Chekhov, but also of theatre and its practices and, probably, the pursuit of “meaning”. Russians like to talk. So do the Irish. And both are pretty good with theatre suffused with meaning and verging on the absurd.

The audience is presented with headphones on seating which the director of “Chekhov’s First Play”, Bush Moukarzel, (the actual director alongside Ben Kidd), explains in a prologue, whilst toting a gun, will allow him to comment on the unfolding “action”, and the thematic sub-texts,  as our assorted melancholic Russians, sans Platonov himself, take to the stage. Turns out the anhedonic Mr Moukarzel is not happy with the play or the performers though and proceeds to drily tell us so. This comic parody of Chekhov, via a disillusioned auteur, is what I had expected when I signed up and what I had sold to the Captain who had gamely agreed to accompany me.

It didn’t stop there though. Whilst there was plenty to chuckle at in the AC take-down, Dead Centre had, in fact, only just got started. When the director exits, permanently, the show really lets rip, taking potshots not just at Chekhov but at all manner of theatrical conventions, and the cast, and the story, bleeds into the present, at one point referencing the impact of the financial crisis in Ireland and ordering in a Chinese take-away. Platonov, the focus of the “characters” hopes and dreams, finally puts in an appearance, but in a way you least expect, but which itself proves a masterstroke. A wrecking ball, literally, swings in, to demolish the “estate’ to the tune of young Ms Cyrus. The rich landowner turns to manual labour. A doctor knows nothing about medicine. The heiress’s blood is blue. Et cetera, et cetera,

Now I can’t pretend that I fully grasped all of the references and all of the ideas Dead Centre were presenting. No matter. there were enough slack-jawed, WTF moments to keep me transfixed and enough playful returns to the obsessions of AC’s own characters to keep me guessing. I reckon that this, like much devised theatre, might have made more “sense” to the creators than the audience, but wild invention goes a long way here. The Captain, who is the very definition of phlegmatic, professed to enjoy it, and, I suspect, was inwardly chiding me for trying too hard to work out what was “going on”.

Andrew Clancey’s unravelling set, and the sound, lighting, choreography and effects of Jimmy Eadie, Kevin Gleeson, Stephen Dodd, Liv O’Donoghoe and Grace O’Hara, alongside the fully committed cast of Andrew Bennett, Tara Egan-Langley, Clara Simpson, Dylan Tighe, Breffni Holahan and Liam Carney, have give or take, been together on this since its premiere in Dublin in 2015. That explains why the deconstructed mayhem is so precise.

This is an entertainment that will stick in the Tourist’s memory for some time, he suspects. No scrub that. This is something that it will take a long time for him to forget.

Aristocrats at the Donmar Warehouse review ****

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Aristocrats

Donmar Warehouse, 20th September 2018

Brian Friel, like his own dramatist hero Chekhov, can take a bit of time to get going. Faith Healer, at this theatre a couple of years ago, exerted a vice like grip on me from the open, though that may have been because it is such a brilliantly crafted and slippery multiple monologue, and thanks to the directorial magic of Lyndsey Turner (the director here as well), and the heavyweight thespian trio of Stephen Dillane, Gina McKee and Ron Cook. Translations, at the NT earlier in the year, is painted on an altogether broader and more thematic canvas, so required a little more cerebral investment (Translations at the National Theatre review ****). Aristocrats is closer to the Russian master, but once again we have a diversity of characters, all with, shall I say, the gift of the gab, so it takes some time for the pot to come to the boil.

But when it does Mr Friel certainly scales the dramatic and semiotic heights,as revelations tumble out, and we watch this sad, trapped family fade from view. The play is set in “the big house”, the Hall, in Friel’s fictional Donegal settlement of Ballybeg. These (largely) Georgian country mansions were found throughout Ireland apparently, but were largely the domain of the Anglo-Irish Protestant families exported by us British to b*gger up Ireland through the centuries, and gifted their land by the Penal Laws from 1695. in Aristocrats the family though is, unusually, Catholic. Not quite Brideshead but cut from similar cloth.

The play is set in the 1970’s and the only income the O’Donnell family now derives from the land is through sales. For three generation the law has been their prime source of income with the largely unseen, and terminally ill, Father (James Laurenson) having been a District Justice. The only son, effete fantasist Kasimir (David Dawson), has failed as a solicitor and now, implausibly, works in a sausage factory in Hamburg with wife Helga and three kids. This leaves long suffering oldest daughter Judith (Eileen Walsh) to look after Dad and shoulder the burden of the decaying house and estate, with substantial help from local fixer Willie Diver (David Ganly). London based daughter Alice (Elaine Cassidy), mired in drink, is unhappily married to Eamon (Emmet Kirwan), the son of an ex-housekeeper, who fully grasps the family’s, and his own, plight. Youngest daughter Claire (Aisling Loftus) is recently engaged and the reason why the family has come together, though clearly vulnerable in her diagnosed depression.

The family is completed by the taciturn Uncle George (Ciaran McIntyre) who has lived in the house since the year dot, and, for the weekend that they all initially come together, an American academic Tom Hoffnung (Paul Higgins), who is researching the history of these very families and houses. The family celebration, predictably, evolves into a bout of ugly soul-searching and thwarted ambition.

This is a family isolated by geography, class, religion and history. Long resented by, and now largely irrelevant to,  the local “peasantry”, ignored by their Protestant peers, wealth dissipated through long economic decline, waiting for the patriarch to die so they can be set free. Dysfunctional, motherless, fearful families are meat and drink in the Irish dramatic tradition, indeed BF himself took this (and the O’Donnell surname) as the starting point for his breakthrough Ballybeg play Philadelphia Here I Come! Both feature three sisters, (well four here as it momentously turns out), and one brother, just like Anton, indeed Aristocrats might be best viewed as a bit too reverential a mash up of Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard. This is, at heart, a story of a family who haven’t really come to grips with the reality of what they have become, just like Chekhov’s families. The past, in BF’s world, is constructed through the language of the present, “false” memories abound.

Indeed this is a little big a part of the problem with Aristocrats. BF’s evident enjoyment in building layer upon layer of character development and in analysing this particular social, cultural and economic milieu does make the first couple of acts just that teensy big tardy. The set of Es Devlin is the non-naturalistic, bluish sunken box, and carefully arranged objects, including a dolls house to signify Ballybeg Hall, that we have come to expect from her which doesn’t offer any visual distraction, adding further distance. When not involved the cast sits at the back, killing time. Uncle George is largely employed to peel away the covering on the back wall to reveal an idyllic C18 arcadian scene, the history of the house in reverse. This play is, after all, one long goodbye.

Fortunately we are treated to some vibrant performances and it is this that brings BF’s melancholic language to life. I expect it didn’t take long for David Dawson to be cast in the role of the “peculiar” Kasimir. Now nervous Kasimir clearly has a bunch of issues, probably caused by Mummy (a suicide) and Daddy. His elaborate invention of a family in Germany, presumably to mask his own sexuality, his apparent inventions about the distinguished literary and musical figures, most improbably Yeats, who visited the house in the past, his belief in Mother’s piano playing ability. Yet there is a kind of child-like desire to be liked which elicits sympathy. it would be pretty easy to under- or over- play Kasimir but Mr Dawson avoids both temptations.

Elaine Cassidy’s Alice is a more recognisably damaged character, purposeless, and here visibly lost to alcohol, with occasional painful glimpses of self-awareness. Eileen Walsh is persuasive when Judith finally gets to free herself from the house and its routine, and the ambiguity of her relationship wth David Ganly’s Willy (as it were), is neatly conveyed. After all his regard for Claire surely explains why he keeps helping, or maybe there is some residual duty and/or pity.

If the family cannot see the truth then it is left to the outsiders to supply it and Emmet Kirwan shows us Eamon’s duality as part of of, but not born into, the family, and the one who may perversely be most attached to the house. Paul Higgins can’t really convince us as to the reasons why Tom is there, he really is a device for BF to “look into” the play and prompt context, but it isn’t too intrusive.

There are some plays that work better after you have seem them. Aristocrats may be one of them for me. Not as perfectly constructed as Faith Healer, as pointed as Philadelphia Here I Come! or as densely clever as Translations, it takes time to break free from its artifice (which this production does nothing to allay). Yet, and in contrast to received critical wisdom, I have a feeling that the impressions left by the characters and the play may linger as long, if not longer, than these masterpieces. Funny things, memories.