Thursday 5 December 2019

Smalltown mockery for Christmas

Drama at Inish

Abbey Theatre

The cast of 'Drama at Inish' at the Abbey
The cast of 'Drama at Inish' at the Abbey
The Crawford Gallery's portrait of author Lennox Robinson, painted by Margaret Clarke

Emer O'Kelly

A revival of 'Drama at Inish' mixes its theatrical metaphors, says Emer O'Kelly.

Lennox Robinson's Drama at Inish is great fun. And Cal McCrystal's production of it as the Christmas offering at the Abbey in no way dilutes the fun. If anything, it tries to emphasise it - and therein lies the problem. When it's obvious that people are trying to do something, it means they haven't really succeeded.

Robinson wrote what was on the surface a gently funny play about small town Irish life in the 1930s. As the son of a small town rectory, he was supremely well qualified to do so: familiar with all its subtleties, while at the same time seen as an outsider as educated Protestants were. It gave his eye a sharp objectivity.

Robinson's sub-text was a send-up of Russian drama, and the then fashionable Stanislavski method of interpreting it. And he got it dead right: a wicked satire on taking drama as a model for real life.

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The Crawford Gallery's portrait of author Lennox Robinson, painted by Margaret Clarke
The Crawford Gallery's portrait of author Lennox Robinson, painted by Margaret Clarke

The "ordinary" people of Inish, inspired by the travelling player couple of Hector de La Mare and Constance Constantia to apply grand tragedy to their own very mundane lives, end up in chaos that is sometimes hilarious, at other times pathetic.

In his programme note, McCrystal says he is taking the premise very seriously: he is inspired by the reality of the horrors of life in touring reps in the early 20th Century, ridicule and poverty dogging their footsteps in every town.

But then he decides to turn the characters into farcical figures, suitable only for mockery.

On top of that, he inserts a pantomime finale of jig and reels, and turning the very real sad character of Aunt Lizzie, jilted and "on the shelf" in her 40s into a floating ballerina in pink tulle.

You can't have it both ways. And Robinson's wise and wicked play deserves better.

But even so, the production is great fun, with a cast led with malicious glee by Nick Dunning and Marion O'Dwyer as the ridiculous de la Mares, against whom pretty well everyone else fades into the background.

Aoibhinn McGinnity remains sadly insignificant in what should be a pivotal role as Aunt Lizzie, although Helen Norton delivers a nicely timed performance as Mrs Twohig.

There are also good "comic turns" from Anthony Moriarty as the lovelorn William Slattery and the equally lovelorn (in a different direction) Ian O'Reilly as Michael, the hotel boots. But they're isolated rather than being part of the whole. Sarah Bacon's design is a perfect period piece, lit by Sinead McKenna, with sound by Carl Kennedy.

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