Sunday 19 August 2018

Adult fairy tale with a sobering edge

  • The Red Shoes, Gate Theatre, Dublin
  • Bang Bang, Bewley’s Cafe Theatre, Dublin
  • Two of Clubs, Theatre Upstairs,Eden Quay Dublin
'The Red Shoes' is a superbly entertaining adult fantasy
'The Red Shoes' is a superbly entertaining adult fantasy

Emer O'Kelly

Fantasy with a little cynicism makes for a sparkling dish.

Take a small dash of cynicism, a medium pot of fantasy, a large helping of imagination and a dash of nastiness. That's the recipe for The Red Shoes, Nancy Harris's version of the 19th Century Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale. The bromide of all original fairy tales (the brothers Grimm are horrendous in their cruelty) is usually reduced to a sickly sweet slop nowadays and Harris's work is only trotting after their brimstone, but her take on the story of the shy orphan who longs for pretty red shoes only to have her wish granted with horrible retribution for her presumption, is very much an adult fantasy of tough self-determination.

Sixteen-year-old Karen, adopted by the socially ambitious Mr and Mrs Nugent to forward their social climbing, timidly hopes for a happy future. Mrs Nugent has other ideas, only for the elderly housekeeper Mags, long downtrodden, to step forward to help the youngster.

But when Sylvester, the maker of magic shoes enters the scene, Karen must face the reality of courage. Passion has a price, and putting your head above the parapet doesn't necessarily bring happiness: but it does bring a kind of pride, the satisfaction of taking control of your own destiny however flawed it may be.

With the help of artful and almost cruelly aware direction from Selina Cartmell, The Red Shoes ably pricks many a balloon as well as puncturing hypocrisy and greed. That it does it superbly entertainingly, with humour that at times is quite vicious, and a compassion for the welter of confusion in which we must live, adds up to an adult fantasy that can well double as a rough-cast moral kick in the pants.

Monica Frawley's set and costume designs are nothing short of superbly brazen and over the top, lit by Paul Keogan.

Liz Roche is responsible for the pitch-perfect choreography to a score by Marc Teitler.

The cast is headed by Stephanie Dufresne as Karen, mainly a dancer's role. Owen Roe and Marion O'Dwyer are hilarious as the ghastly Mr and Mrs Nugent, with David Pearse the epitome of slieveen-ism in the separately nasty roles of Sylvester and the local pastor-on-the-make (financial, of course). Rosaleen Linehan is a touching Mags, and Paul Mescal scores a real hit as the Prince who is anything but the answer to a maiden's prayer.

*****

If you have a heart to break, it will break at Dermot Bolger's exquisite little tragi-comedy Bang Bang and Pat McGrath's equally exquisite performance as one of Dublin's most legendary characters.

It's set in 1980, apparently the year Bang Bang, alias Thomas Dudley, died in a home for the blind in north Dublin. He had spent his life hopping on and off bus platforms, swinging perilously from the bar as he took aim with his trusty rusty key, shouting "bang! bang!" at passers-by, in his mind's eye cast as rustlers, cardsharpers and dirty deal-doers in Dodge City.

Bolger tells a story of unspeakable deprivation and hardship, eased only by the magic of fantasy. Bang Bang was put in a Cabra orphanage at the age of seven, to be reared to love God through the joy of being beaten half senseless by the priests he calls "gospel sharks" in the black house with the locked doors. Pitched out at 16, illiterate and not quite "all there" he began his life as a gun-slinger in the Bohemian Cinema where he saw his first western.

Housed in old age in Oliver Bond flats, he was used mercilessly by young drug dealers and addicts who pitched there, occasionally giving him a bottle of stout. Bang Bang calls the scars on the addicts' arms "snake bites" and weaves fantasies even about them. Until the social workers and the gardai come, and he is moved into his final home.

McGrath's performance is a gem, oozing child-like loving innocence, always underlaid with fear and loneliness, and is a fitting tribute to a touching piece of our past.

It's directed by Mark O'Brien in a co-production with Axis Ballymun.

*****

Jessica Leen's Two of Clubs has extraordinarily high ambitions, and an awful lot of them are achieved, or come close to being achieved.

The play is a musical two-hander telling the story of a girl from Cork who runs off to join the circus… well, actually to New York, with the ambition of becoming a singer. She doesn't fall into the hands of white slavers, but into the arms of a smitten young man from her home town. A very modest if slightly sleazy success follows as a jazz singer.

But Polly becomes pregnant, and as it's 1941 and Johnnie can't find work, he joins up after Pearl Harbour and is sent overseas, leaving Polly alone and with her career not exactly flourishing.

After the war, real life and its troubles crowd in, in a bittersweet tale of reality overcoming romance and ambition. The whole thing hangs together extremely well, even if Leen, who also plays Polly, tries to crowd too much into the single hour of stage time.

Leen has an impressive emotional range as Polly, and performing her own jazz score she displays a fairly dazzling voice, while she is well supported by Darragh Shannon as Johnnie.

There's an inventive and atmospheric night club set by Naomi Rossini, and direction is by Ronan Dempsey.

It's an Nth Degree production.

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