Sunday 22 April 2018

Classic play gets innovative makeover

Ian Toner as Jimmy Porter
Ian Toner as Jimmy Porter

Katy Hayes

Director Annabelle Comyn takes an innovative approach to John Osborne's famous, angry text; the play here wears its dramatic architecture as an exoskeleton. Stage directions are sometimes delivered from a microphone at the side and often don't match the on-stage action; the backstage area is clearly visible; the actors sometimes whisper and drink water when "off". The production continually toys with ideas of authenticity and theatrical truth. What is deeply satisfying is that these innovations have been created out of the essence of conventional dramatic tools. A play that was a major breakthrough in British realist theatre in the mid 1950s has been reconstructed in an avant-garde way, while maintaining its essential strengths of story and character.

If this all sounds a bit tricksy, it is. But it is always in the service of the emotional through-lines. The ending of the play depends on achieving an intense emotional climax, and there is a constant danger of spilling into melodrama. The innovative staging adds an extra layer of directorial control just when it is most needed.

Paul O'Mahony's ingenious set is a box frame standing in the empty shell of the Gate stage, a prop table visible to the rear. It has two huge windows, in clear contradiction of the stage directions, to allow for viewing of the ancillary action in the off-stage space. The play opens with Jimmy Porter (Ian Toner, above), Cliff Lewis (Lloyd Cooney) and Alison Porter (Clare Dunne) in the shabby flat, conducting the rituals of a Sunday morning. The men read the newspapers and the woman is ironing. Alison, from an upper-class background, is clearly slumming it with her rough-hewn husband. Cliff, here played as an Irishman, is also in love with Alison. It emerges early on that Alison is pregnant, and that this is not seen as good news; the atmosphere contains too much threatening instability for a child. Alison's friend Helena (Vanessa Emme) joins them to lodge in the house, bringing plenty of posh defiance with her.

Jimmy is a difficult, brash, provocative person, who enjoys needling others and has a barely suppressed aggressive streak. He is a terrific character, full of destructiveness, and is magnificently played by Toner. All the other performances are superbly well judged.

The impact of the innovative staging is enhanced by Tom Lane's pugnacious sound design, which contributes to the general unsettling of the audience. Comyn, with a bravura directorial stroke, has transformed this piece of museum theatre into a dynamic contemporary engagement with the idea of theatrical form.

Book it now

1  AFTER THE END

The New Theatre, Dublin until Feb 24

Successful British writer Dennis Kelly’s play from 2011 is about a pair of office workers who hide in an underground shelter after a suitcase bomb explodes. Their power relationship is altered by their changed circumstances.

2 SCORCH

Project Arts Centre, Dublin until March 3

Prime Cut present a much garlanded play by Stacey Gregg from 2015. This solo performance by Amy McAllister, directed by Emma Jordan, is a tale of first love as seen through the eyes of a gender-curious teen.

3 WAITING FOR GODOT

Town Hall Theatre, Galway Feb 22 – March 3

Druid’s acclaimed production of Samuel Beckett’s classic returns for a victory lap to the company’s home town. Stars Garrett Lombard, Aaron Monaghan, Rory Nolan and Marty Rea. Directed by Garry Hynes.

A satirical slice of recent history

Haughey/Gregory, Peacock, Dublin

The late Tony Gregory and his innovative north Dublin political group may have been making up the script as they went along, but playwright Colin Murphy certainly isn't. The narrative, though highly creative in presentation, sticks closely to the known facts; the result is a funny and fascinating slice of recent political history.

It is late 1979: a left-wing activist group in the north inner city works to protect the area from Dublin Corporation's development plans which involve eradicating housing stock to build an "inner-city relief route motorway". A young Tony Gregory spies the opportunity to convert the local grass-roots energy into a political movement.

After the general election of 1982, Gregory (now a TD), held the balance of power between the two wings of Irish politics: Fianna Fáil led by Charlie Haughey, fighting bitter internal party wars; and Garret Fitzgerald trying to create a Fine Gael-led coalition. Gregory's mission is to get the best deal for his neglected constituents.

The script-in-hand presentation of 90 minutes whizzes by, accompanied by 1980s hit songs, all shaped beautifully by director Conall Morrison. There is a hilarious satirical vignette of a Workers' Party "Stickies" meeting. Other highlights include Charlie Haughey, a slick self-satisfied Morgan Jones, lording it over everyone; and a wonderfully bumbling Jonathan White as Garret FitzGerald trying to impress the socialists with his erudite views on education. Gregory, played with earnest defiance by Ruarí Heading, makes his maiden speech in the Dáil while other TDs are vociferously hostile to what they see as the ultimate in stroke politics. One plaintive TD yells: "What about Cork?", to great laughter.

Like the socialist movement depicted, this Fishamble: The New Play Company production is flying by the seat of its pants with short rehearsal time and no designer credited. Joan O'Clery achieves much for the production with her clever costumes, and the actors create a lot of magic, while still grasping their scripts. Invoking the spirit of Tony Gregory, it is achieving a lot with scant resources.

Katy Hayes

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