Monday 24 October 2016

Garth Brooks with a dose of poison

* Donegal, Abbey Theatre
* First Love, O'Reilly Hall, Belvedere College
* Every Brilliant Thing, Pavillion Theatre Dun Laoghaire

Emer O'Kelly

Published 17/10/2016 | 02:30

Keith McErlean, Megan Riordan, and John Kavanagh in Donegal by Frank McGuinness at the Abbey Theatre. Photo by Ros Kavanagh
Keith McErlean, Megan Riordan, and John Kavanagh in Donegal by Frank McGuinness at the Abbey Theatre. Photo by Ros Kavanagh
Jonny Donahoe performs in Every Brilliant Thing at the Pavilion Theatre, Dun Laoghaire, as part of Dublin Theatre Festival 2016

A new Frank McGuinness play with music: one might expect the score to be something slightly atonal, even discordant, and a mixture of the contemporary and primal. Well yah, boo, sucks: Donegal is primeval rather than primal, and the score is pure country at its best, full of rhythm and raw sentiment; while the plotline is pure traditional: an Irish family at war with no quarter given between the parties.

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Irene Day is Ireland's Queen of Country. That's a given, say her family members, with the Irish predilection for refusing to face facts. In reality, her crown is rusted and battered, and only clinging by guess or by god to her lacquered bouffant hair. And since she is the sole earner in her long-tailed family of elderly mother, elderly father-in-law, unfocussed daughter, alcoholic unemployable sister and anxiety prone son-in-law, and a husband who is also her incompetent manager, the wage packet ain't going anywhere near what is required.

Enter her estranged son who has spent years in the US, carving out a nice little career for himself as a singer/songwriter. He left in the bad old days when families called gay relatives queers and isolated them. He did once visit and bring a boyfriend home, but it was a disaster. Now he's back again, with the ex-boyfriend's sister, who is planning to marry him in a loveless and sexless marriage. With an eye on the main chance, she wants him to join her as a "Christian duo": in the States that is where the money is.

But if you can take the boy out of Donegal, you can't take Donegal out of . . . And reality, however bitter, re-asserts itself for Jackie. Even if his family plans to prey on him relentlessly and offer no thanks for his help, they're still family.

McGuinness's play is a disgusted allegory for what we've done to Irish society through our arrogance, our greed, and our hypocrisies. Paradoxically, it is also a love letter to the author's native Donegal, left unfinished and without resolution, but still able to feel disillusioned hope.

And it is given a superbly slick and entertaining production at the Abbey, gloriously directed by Conall Morrison, and with production values which would put Garth Brooks to shame.

In fact, Garth Brooks eat your heart out. And that sentiment also applies to Kevin Doherty's music score which perfectly complements McGuinness's savagely pointed lyrics.

Killian Day's marvellous voice and stage presence are matched by his angrily helpless delivery as Jackie, and Siobhan McCarthy matches him enthusiastically as the glamorously tough, terrified Irene. Frank Laverty is her desperate husband trying to battle his way out of a corner of his own building, and the other singing roles are splendidly taken by Ruth McGill as their daughter, and Keith McErlean as her miserably defeated husband.

Eleanor Methven achieves subtle emotional isolation as the catalyst drunken Joanne, and Deirdre Donnelly and John Kavanagh spew spine-chilling venom as the begetters of this poisoned tribe. Megan Riordan is Liza, the interloper doomed to expulsion. Whether the expulsion will represent heaven or hell is left to the imagination.

Conor Linehan is the musical director and arranger for the faultless on-stage septet; the atmospherically open set is designed by Liam Doona , and lit by Ben Ormerod. The costumes, which include a few crackers which would delight Dolly Parton, are by Joan O'Clery.

If you like country music, Donegal is not to be missed. If you loathe country music or are somewhere in between, Donegal is not to be missed.

BECKETT's novella First Love post-dates Happy Days by ten years, having been published in French in 1970, and in English in 1973. For such a comparatively late work, it seems positively florid by Beckettian standards; but it was written in the 1940s, and can be counted as a piece of juvenilia. But what juvenilia!

In old or possibly late middle age, a man recalls what he considered his first love: aged 25, and "at the mercy of an erection" he engages in conversation with a woman who joins him on a bench on the canal. "The mistake" he muses, "is to speak to people." It is something he has avoided since "leaving home" forced out by the death of his father, and "their" refusal to allow him to continue to live solitary in his room and be brought food there.

Driven from his bench by Lulu's proximity, he takes refuge in a cowshed he had spied out for the purpose, and there, as he punctures a cow-pat and frenziedly tears up huge nettles, he believes he has discovered love.

Enticed into Lulu's sordid lodgings (he has re-christened her Anna), they live separately, he in one of the two rooms with her stew pan as company for a chamber pot, and separated from his "love's" room by the kitchen. Except, of course, for when he wakens to the torture of her naked presence in his bed.

But he is spared an excess due to her noisy duties with clients in the next room. He just wishes they would be quieter. But when Lulu/Anna tells him she is pregnant and the child is his, he must face other sounds: her efforts in labour. The sounds following him, he leaves the rooms forever, resentful that he is doing it by choice rather than being forcibly ejected.

There have been others since, but this was first love, and not to be forgotten.

The bleakness is extraordinary, made more so in the Gate production at the O'Reilly Hall where, directed by Michael Colgan, Barry McGovern plays the man as something akin to a petit-bourgeois clerk, respectably if grubbily arrayed in something that might be worn by a Myles na Gopaleen character, and delivers himself of his history grouchily rather than lugubriously. And as the piece progresses (it plays for an hour, nearly fifteen minutes shorter than the duration given to it by Conor Lovett when he played it during a European tour in 2008), he becomes increasingly lively, even twinkling wryly from time to time. It's unexpected for Beckett, and indeed for McGovern as a Beckett interpreter, but the early scene-setting is haunting enough to cast the mild sense of acceptance of a tragic and lonely fate into a monstrosity of Greek proportions.

Eileen Diss's shadow-set is artfully lit by James McConnell, and makes the empty space of the O'Reilly stage an asset that McGovern uses to the full.

BILLED as the funniest play you'll ever see about depression, Every Brilliant Thing comes to the Dublin Theatre Festival groaning under its accolades from around the world. It began at a small arts festival in England some years ago, and has been rolling along ever since gathering the moss of worshipful praise.

It's also a Paines Plough production (in association with Pentabus) and that's a company that doesn't exactly sit on its hands when it comes to quality and achievement.

And after all that: sorry. It left me fairly cold, feeling uncomfortably that I was watching self-pitying whimsy to an almost voyeuristic extent. Jonny Donahoe plays Duncan Macmillan's text about a man in his mid-thirties who suffers from depression, which began the day he was picked up from school by his father and was told that Mum had "done something stupid." She'd tried to kill herself (unsuccessfully) because she didn't know how to be happy. And then the little boy did come up against death: when the vet came to put down Ronnie Barker, his beloved dog who was older than he was (after all, he was only eight.)

It's the jumping-off point for an inter-active piece in which various audience members are hit upon to "play" various characters in the protagonist's life,

The point is that despite having set out to write a list of "brilliant things" shortly after his mother's suicide attempt, the little boy grew into a man who suffered from depression. Depression prevented him realising his potential or forming relationships. Except that he did get married … to a girl he saw in the library while he was at university; which doesn't sound as though it was that difficult. Eventually (of course) she left him, triggering a "proper" response: he got professional help.

All of this is told through the list of "brilliant things" which has now reached a million. It is only mildly funny and the person I felt sorry for was the fictitious wife who'd had enough. The message is undoubtedly important: that suicide is never necessary or a good idea. The trouble is that "never" is a rather definitively comprehensive word in our complex world.

Though well directed by George Perrin, with a terrific jazz musical backing track, the piece left me feeling a bit as though I'd taken a bath in treacle.

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