Saturday 1 October 2016

Theatre: China tale made to measure

Emer O'Kelly

Published 15/02/2016 | 02:30

Gangs: From left, Rex Ryan, Neil Fleming, and Edwin Mullane star in Made in China
Gangs: From left, Rex Ryan, Neil Fleming, and Edwin Mullane star in Made in China

Mark O'Rowe certainly knows how to get ahead of himself. He wrote Made in China in 2001, when it was staged at the Peacock. It was, and is, a coal-black comedy of gang violence and thuggery set in a dystopian Dublin that's a kind of "never-ever" land. Except that 15 years on, even O'Rowe's mastery of graphically imaginative brutality could almost be quaint given the way life and violence have progressed.

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The Corps Ensemble have taken up a residency at the Viking Theatre in Clontarf in Dublin, and Made in China is their first production.

Hughie is the chief enforcer for Puppa Cat, and he's grooming young Paddy to join the elite gang. His current job is to break the legs of a gang rival who was the driver of a car which (accidentally) mowed down Hughie's mother, who is in intensive care as a result.

Hughie knows it was an accident, but Puppa Cat is having none of it: discipline is to be the order of the day. So far, so ridiculous. Then, enter Kilby, Puppa Cat's right-hand man in the pecking order. He's a self-styled martial arts expert and wears a jacket with secret Chinese symbols to prove it. He's also not very bright, and has trouble with his bowels.

The action of the play, which is wildly, outrageously, sickeningly funny, takes us on a journey through events that include a one-legged fortune teller who doesn't wear her prosthetic while having sex with her boyfriend in the church during Hughie's mother's funeral.

Then we discover what those Chinese symbols mean; and we also discover the root of Kilby's internal difficulties. It ain't pretty, and funny though it is, it also ain't for the faint-hearted.

Neill Fleming emerges as the undoubted star of the production in his portrayal of the psychotic Kilby, but he gets more than adequate support from Rex Ryan as the bewildered Paddy, and Edwin Mullane as the pathetically posturing Hughie.

Jed Murray's direction gets the balance of hysteria absolutely right: it never goes out of control. And Katie Davenport's set makes a good fist of surmounting the space limitations of the Viking Theatre.

The production is lit by Joe Flavin, and Ciaran O'Grady directs the fight sequences, again making a good fist of the close quarters.

Take five playlets themed on love: it's unlikely that they will all work. Except, in the Blue Heart Theatre company's presentation of Couples+Pairs at Theatre Upstairs, in Lanigan's bar on Eden Quay in Dublin, they do.

Erica Murray's Baggage gives us a mix-up when a woman mistakes a solitary man in a bar for the agency- date she's expecting to meet. And five minutes later, we all have big smiles on our faces: whatever your baggage, with a bit of luck there's someone out there for you.

In Modern Romantic, by Brian Higgins, a woman confides that after her break-up, the search for Mr Right turned into a search for Mr Anyone. But a hopeful start ends up with "Never the time and the place" when the man in the picture knows they "won't be back for seconds".

Sean Denyer's The Tearing Up of Fergal and Tim portrays a pair of gay men dividing up the books when they split up after years together. After all, they haven't had sex for a year, and they've both been seeing others on the sly; so what's the point? But the shared past keeps butting in….

First Impressions, Missed Connections by Mike Kunze has a laid-back man and a frantic woman at a speed-dating session, with the outside world having a nasty habit of intruding through the ubiquitous cell-phone.

And we finish with Icarus, with a lesbian couple managing to mix chalk and cheese into a tremulously successful bake despite their wildly dissimilar childhoods and life experiences.

The five pieces pack a tenaciously realistic punch, and they're quite splendidly performed by the company ensemble, Niamh Denyer, Brian Higgins, Aisling Flynn and Mike Kunze, with direction by Kunze, Ayrton O'Brien and Howard Lodge.

Music is provided by Cal Folger Day linking the pieces with standards from the easy-listening romantic repertoire; and the lighting is by Colm Horan.

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