Copper Face Jacks The Musical review: A fun night but far too familiar
Writer Paul Howard, best known as the creator of the Ross O'Carroll-Kelly character, has ventured into deepest Harcourt Street for his new musical set in the eponymous nightclub.
Kerry girl Noeleen ventures up to Dublin, her dream of getting a permanent and pensionable job with the VHI secured. She leaves behind her fiancé Mossy, who has a wind farm, and milks the turbines every day. Once settled in a bedsit in Dublin, Noeleen marches into Copper Face Jacks to ask them to turn down the music. She stumbles upon Gino, the captain of the Dublin football team, who works as a clamper. Gino is racist about Kerry people, arising from a bad experience in the Dingle Gaeltacht with Fungie the dolphin when he was a nipper. But all that prejudice falls away when be meets the girl of his dreams.
Howard's satire is gentle. The sections set in Kerry are a hilarious send-up of the rural Irish play, complete with a bedraggled Irish mammy, flavoured with notes of the high linguistic style of John B Keane or John Millington Synge. The portrait of the clientèle of Coppers, with its guards, teachers and nurses, is a send-up of all these professions, but is lovingly rendered.
There are several first-rate and memorable songs, with lyrics by Howard and music by Dave McCune or Paul Woodfull. These include a hilarious paean to the health insurer 'VHI'; a daft love song to a hometown, 'Cahersiveen'; and a sweet and gently provocative coming out song, 'I'm Gay, I'm GAA'. Other songs are great dance numbers, like 'Whoops, I'm Back in Copper Face Jacks'.
Director Karl Harpur does a terrific job injecting energy at every opportunity, and the book and lyrics flow into each other like pints in a Dublin nightclub. Musical director Cathal Synnott gets fine singing from the cast, whipping up the audience into high good humour. Roseanna Purcell gives a charming comic performance as Noeleen, the awkward country girl. Johnny Ward is a terrific Conor McGregor-type as Gino. Stephen O'Leary as the jilted Kerry wind farmer wisely goes broad instead of deep, with a show-stealing performance of pure eejitry.
But what is disappointing is that Howard, despite all the new ideas on display, essentially falls back on familiar territory and recreates Ross O'Carroll-Kelly. Gino turns into a lovable stud-bastard type and it works okay, but feels a bit old hat. The American gender studies professor turning up looking for the father of her child is a great idea, but the writing surrounding it is weak. Michele McGrath gives a commanding performance in the role, however.
Given the paucity of decent writing on the stage in Ireland at the moment, and given that Howard is such a brilliant observer of Irish social mores, it's a pity that this isn't just a little bit sharper. It needs a few more teeth, and could have acquired them without losing any of its commercial bite.
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A darlin' backstory for old Joxer Daly
In Seán O'Casey's great play Juno and the Paycock, the character of Joxer Daly inevitably gets upstaged, even when the part is played brilliantly. He is always merely the sidekick to the dominant Captain Boyle and the butt of Juno's wrath. It is a pleasure to see him have the stage to himself and to get a glimpse at Joxer's tragedy.
Playwright Eddie Naughton takes a few lines in the original play about Joxer having been a "Chief Ranger of the Dear Little Shamrock Branch of the Irish National Foresters" and extrapolates from that a backstory for the character: how he was well employed with a staff job, but lost his position following the Dublin Lockout of 1914 and an expression of sympathy with the workers. Naughton wisely eschews the temptation to copy O'Casey's knotty prose style; the Dublin idiom used here is colourfully convincing but never veers into pastiche.
There is a shabby nobility about Joxer, with his poetry quotations and his love of song. Though the Dublin Lockout was the occasion of his fall from his precarious perch in the world, the alcoholism feels inevitable. He was never going to toe the respectable line, even with better historical luck.
The play follows the story of the Easter Rising, the War of Independence and the Civil War through the eyes of a man perched on a bar stool, whose primary interest is in the source of his next pint of Guinness. Joxer has the apolitical stance of the committed drunk, but he draws the line at becoming an informer for money, when the occasion arises.
Phelim Drew is perfect for the part. He is every inch a Joxer, with his skinny frame and ability to do pure Dub, though his beard could do with a bit more bedraggling.
A sparse and effective design by Lisa Krugel, incorporating creaky floorboards and a shabby curtain, creates a neat frame for the performance. Director Karl Shiels cranks up the poignancy without ever veering into the sentimental. Perfect lunchtime entertainment.