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Opera points an accusing finger

Hansel and Gretel

Abbey Theatre

Maura Laverty, This Was Your Life

Civic Theatre Tallaght

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Conductor Richard Peirson (at piano), Amelie Metcalfe and Ronan Millar (the lost children), and Raymond Keane (the night porter) in the INO/Theatre Lovett production of Hansel and Gretel

Conductor Richard Peirson (at piano), Amelie Metcalfe and Ronan Millar (the lost children), and Raymond Keane (the night porter) in the INO/Theatre Lovett production of Hansel and Gretel

Conductor Richard Peirson (at piano), Amelie Metcalfe and Ronan Millar (the lost children), and Raymond Keane (the night porter) in the INO/Theatre Lovett production of Hansel and Gretel

It's been noticeable that when the Abbey management has entered into co-production with other companies in recent years, the most successful have been where it's hard to see the Abbey's own input.

And it's certainly true of the current presentation (the first opera on the Abbey stage, to the best of my knowledge) in co-production with the Irish National Opera and Theatre Lovett - both of them dynamic and at the top of their game. INO hit the ground running at its inception, and shows no sign of slowing down under Fergus Sheil's artistic guidance; and Theatre Lovett, under Muireann Ahern and Louis Lovett, have long had international recognition in the world of children's and young people's theatre.

Now they have combined to offer a mischievous, imaginative and slightly naughty version of Engelbert Humperdinck's sub-Wagnerian Hansel and Gretel. Ahern and Lovett as directors seem to revel in fidelity to the composer's wish of making a work that will appeal to children as well as adults, while cocking a snook at any notion of reverential approach; and this is well suited to conductor Richard Peirson's re-scoring for INO's seven piece ensemble rather than a full orchestra (himself on piano).

The forest has become The Forest Edge Hotel; the haunted wood the hotel's Haunted Wood Bar, and the witch's gingerbread house is a floating will-o'-the-wisp. (The enticing goodies are revealed in a refrigerator that has been transformed from the hotel reception desk.) And Father and Mother and the children are weary and homeless… lest we forget about 2020.

The score gives INO the opportunity of inviting our own Wagnerian Miriam Murphy home to sing the part of Mother, marvellously matched by Ben McAteer's weighty baritone as Father. Amy Ni Fhearraigh and Raphaela Mangan are gloriously touching and well-matched as the children, Ni Fhearraigh as a bossy Gretel, and Mangan in the cheeky trouser role of Hansel.

Carolyn Dobbin sustains comic gusto with vibrant musicality as the witch, and Emma Nash doubles the roles of the Dew Fairy and the Sandman. Actor Raymond Keane, master of choreographed movement, is eerily sinister as the night porter who morphs into various "presences," and young actors Ronan Millar and Amelie Metcalfe make enchanting/enchanted waifs.

Designers Jamie Vartan (set and costumes), Sarah Jane Shiels (lighting), and Jack Phelan (video) add to the perfection of this utterly delightful production which will tour nationally, and should not be missed.

*******

They were innocent days: the era when Irish cookery expertise presented apple tart as high art, while a Spanish omelette was mysterious and exotic. They were the days when Maura Laverty was queen of the kitchen, largely through her cookbook All in the Cooking.

My mother had it - her only cookery book - because the ESB (I think) handed one out as a freebie with the purchase of a cooker.

So who was Maura Laverty? Bairbre Ni Chaoimh and Yvonne Quinn have re-constructed her life in Maura Laverty: This was Your Life (at the Civic Theatre, and touring nationally.) She had it tough: her father drank, her mother struggled… and preferred Maura's sister. Packed off to Spain as what would become known as an au pair, she learned the rudiments of good food, and fell for an Austrian.

Returning to Ireland, she dumped him for an Irish journalist, whom she married on (very) short acquaintance. She lived to regret it, even before he disappeared with a younger woman, and Maura was left to raise their three children, two of whom, admittedly, were almost adult.

But she had become famous through the ESB-sponsored radio programme, and was even invited to the US for a St Patrick's Day cookery demonstration. She was also writing plays for the Gate theatre. Stories of simple Dublin life, they were highly successful but, not for the first time, the Edwards-MacLiammoir management didn't pay up.(She also wrote novels: to her credit, they were banned in Ireland.)

But Maura hit the jackpot when the new Irish TV station commissioned her to write its first TV soap, Tolka Row, which she was still writing at the time of her lonely death… from drink, and possibly (although it is only an implication) from suicide. Her body was not discovered for some days.

It is all revealed through the device of Rip (geddit?) Reilly's TV chat show, in which he raises people from their graves to interrogate their lives. Ni Chaoimh plays Laverty, with Malachy McKenna as an oily TV host, directed by Joan Sheehy.

Together, they re-create a woman who may have been responsible for her own misfortunes in many ways, but still deserved better from life.

Sunday Indo Living