Wednesday 20 September 2017

McColgan eager to bounce back with a show from 'the depths of our DNA'

Colin Murphy

By today, as his new show plays its fourth and fifth previews, John McColgan should be starting to relax. But he won't really know until Thursday. That's the day after opening night. It's not the reviews he's waiting for. It's the audience reaction. "You never know till you know," he says. "There's no shortcut. The audience is the last person to talk to us."

The new show is Heartbeat of Home (running until October 12 at the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre), which McColgan has devised and directed, with his wife, Moya Doherty, producing – the team behind Riverdance.

I saw Riverdance this summer. It seemed so simple: Irish dance with a bit of bling and bags of gusto. That it was difficult to remember just how revolutionary it had been is a marker of its success in changing the public face of Irish dance. McColgan and Doherty made Irish dancing sexy, and brought it global.

But past success is no guarantor of future triumph. In 2007, the couple brought a new musical to Broadway, The Pirate Queen, by the composers of Les Misérables (Irish-dancing pirates – what's not to like?). During previews, it got standing ovations. After the opening night, the cast and crew retired to Sardi's restaurant, as is traditional, to await the reviews. They used to have to wait for the first edition of the newspapers; now, the reviews come in on people's smartphones.

The first reviews were good. And then came Ben Brantley, the lead critic at The New York Times. His word can make or break a show. He didn't like it. (Though the headline had a good quip: "Oceandance," he called it.)

"We knew we had a problem," recalls McColgan. Sometimes, marketing and word of mouth can defeat bad reviews, but that takes time, and money. (Wicked and Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark both won out over the critics.) The Pirate Queen struggled on for some weeks, but she was listing badly and soon sank. The show reportedly lost more than $16m (€11.8m).

"It dents your confidence for a while," says McColgan. "It's like you've been in an accident. It takes time for your psyche to heal. You have to regroup and analyse what happened. Do you have the confidence to start again?"

McColgan and Doherty did, and they learned from their failure. "The difference here is that the creative control is entirely in our hands. We understand in the depths of our DNA what were are doing. And it's an entirely Irish team."

The other difference is that they've gone back to the form of their first success, to produce a "music and dance spectacular" rather than a musical. Heartbeat's natural home is not Broadway, but the international touring circuit. It's not the critics that count, but the promoters, and Heartbeat has already pre-sold tours to China and Canada, with more promoters due to fly in for the Dublin premiere.

In 20 years since Riverdance, Irish music and dance has changed, and so has Ireland; in Heartbeat, McColgan aims to capture that.

Some of that change has been negative: there has been "great pain" in the past five years, he says, particularly due to forced emigration, but he hopes audiences will leave the theatre "with a sense of renewed hope, feeling that the world is a better place".

And some of the change has been wondrous: Ireland is now a melting pot of global cultures, and Irish music and dance has an audience well beyond the Irish diaspora. This is reflected in a show that mixes Irish influences with Latin and Afro-Cuban, and in a multinational cast in which even many of the Irish dancers have no connection to Ireland at all.

Riverdance may have been revolutionary at the time, but even this summer's production at the Gaiety, which looked cheap and felt artistically tired, was tremendous fun, at times exhilarating.

Heartbeat has the talent and the budget to breathe new life into that formula: if it captures the sense of fun, it may repeat the success. We await the verdict of the audience.

* Earlier this year, I wrote about Mirjana Rendulic, whose play Broken Promise Land is based on her own experience as an immigrant and one-time pole dancer in Dublin. Watch out for it on tour, coming next to Galway and Tullamore.

colinmurphy@independent.ie

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