Wednesday 13 November 2019

Urban spirit turns golden

THEATRE

EMER O'KELLY

SEBASTIAN Barry's 2007 love-song to Dublin The Pride of Parnell Street has been revived by Fishamble for a national tour. At the Backstage Theatre in Longford on Tuesday, it will be at The Helix in Dublin from tomorrow for one week.

It is not quite the production that electrified audiences in its original staging. Directed by Jim Culleton, that featured Mary Murray and Karl Shiels as the inner city couple Janet and Joe whose helpless, hopeless love story had nothing going for it other than a manifestation of the unquenchable spirit that was the "pride of Parnell Street" before, as Janet says with small bitterness, the Africans took over. That coupling of actors was so tender in its gossamer beauty that you were almost afraid to breathe.

Joe Hanley has replaced Shiels for the tour, and his interpretation of Joe makes it a very different piece, a lot more cocky, a lot less tentatively tender. The play is set in 1999, when Janet and Joe have long separated, and she is living and working as a cleaner in the "wilds" of suburbia with her now teenage boys, and Joe lies dying a stinking, miserable death from the various cancers and infections that have invaded his body since contracting "the virus" from the "scag" he became addicted to while serving a sentence in Mountjoy for grievous bodily harm.

He will not live to see the Millennium, and both he and Janet know it.

As Hanley plays Joe, it's almost as though the actor forgets or was unaware of the pervasive fear of Aids in the drug-laden city communities of the time. Somehow, there is a feeling in the playing that for all his resignation and acceptance, he feels there's going to be a miracle somewhere in the offing. Perhaps it's because Hanley plays the role for as many laughs as he can wring out of it; and since it is desperately, horribly tragic, there's a forced gracelessness to it all.

Mary Murray has enlarged and hardened her performance, perhaps in response to Hanley's comic posturings, and the balance of her playing has changed from an essential gentleness underlying the tough survival techniques forced on her by her husband's one violent attack, to an innate toughness occasionally overlaid with tender weakness.

What hasn't changed is Sebastian Barry's tempestuous celebration of the Dublin spirit, and his glorious language that swoops through hideous imagery and relentlessly crude urban vernacular until it becomes a poetry that cleanses the spirit.

*******

SHANE Connaughton scripted the film My Left Foot, so he's no slouch as a writer. He also has what can accurately be described as a distinguished career as an actor on stage and screen, here and in the UK. So where his latest play The Pitch came from leaves me flummoxed. Because it really is extremely weak, badly constructed, and leadenly predictable.

An old man lives on a wild, disused GAA pitch alongside a lake in Co Cavan. He is isolated from his community and shunned by the residents of the neighbouring village. With a nod to Sophocles' Philoctetes, he has a stinking poisoned foot. The Greeks abandoned the latter on an island on their way to Troy because they couldn't stand the stench from his poisoned foot, only to return 10 years later because they'd been told by a seer that they needed the abandoned warrior and his magic bow to defeat the Trojans. Not surprisingly, Philoctetes wasn't minded to be co-operative.

In 21st Century Cavan, the village gombeen man, son of Philly's boyhood enemy, wants the old man's pitch for housing development, and Philly in his turn isn't minded to co-operate.

The play is a long-drawn out single conversation held statically in a corner of the field between Philly, gombeen man, and gombeen man's orphaned niece who may or may not be Philly's granddaughter, as they try to persuade him to sign over the pitch in return for lifetime accommodation in a luxury nursing home owned (you've guessed it) by gombeen man.

Then there's the niece's Polish boyfriend: he has a sore knee which may prevent him turning out for the county final, and Philly has "the cure" in his hands. And the pitch is sacred to Philly anyway, because the last time his team won the final was 1945, except that he wasn't permitted to play because of his violent behaviour in the semi-final. (The captain had to chain him in goal -- literally -- to prevent him attacking everyone in sight.)

The whole thing is ridiculous, its themes laboured, the writing effortful and long-drawn out. There's even an interval for no apparent reason, as afterwards the repetitive conversation takes up exactly where it left off. Cutting it to a single act of one hour would at least be helpful.

Connaughton himself plays Philly just about adequately, which is more than can be said for Fiona Fitzpatrick as niece Penny and Niall Lynch as gombeen Ronnie. "Original direction" is credited to Kerry Crabbe, whatever that means, particularly since there's no visible sign of a directorial hand anywhere. Set, lighting, and sound are all unacceptably poor.

The Pitch is a Moth production at the Ramor Theatre in Virginia, Co Cavan, touring to Limerick, Castlebar, Listowel, Derry, Leitrim, Enniskillen, and finally the New Theatre in Dublin.

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