Monday 18 February 2019

The Shaughraun at Smock Alley Theatre review: Ambitious play lacks ingenuity

Review: The Shaughraun, Smock Alley Theatre

The Shaughraun
The Shaughraun

Katy Hayes

Dion Boucicault's comic melodrama received its first production in New York in 1874. It gets frequent revivals; its staging possibilities offer rich opportunities for re-interpretation and its good-humoured take on mid-19th century Anglo-Irish relations is an easy pill to swallow. Originally charged with pandering to stage-Irish stereotypes, Boucicault has, in more recent decades, received an unofficial pardon for this. Irish sensitivities have lessened as Irish confidence has grown.

Robert Ffolliott is a convicted Fenian who has escaped from Australia and lands off the coast of Sligo. While he has been away, the villainous Corry Kinchela has swindled him out of his ancestral home by impoverishing the estate, then taking out a mortgage on it. Kinchela wants the house and land but he also wants Ffolliott's fiancée, Arte O'Neal. Robert's sister Claire Ffolliott is doing her best to hold the fort, but against all her instincts, she is falling in love with the good-natured English Captain Molineaux.

The play sheds light on many subsequent developments in Irish drama and storytelling, in particular the Irish mammy character, Mrs O'Kelly who is besotted with her roguish only son. The characters of Claire Ffolliott and Captain Molineaux are clearly prototypes for Brian Friel's Irish/English lovers in Translations, even down to the Englishman's marvelling at the texture of the Irish place names.

The high-octane storyline involves shootings, kidnappings, fake deaths, and cliff-top bonfires. It also has plenty of romance and good lines. But there are serious challenges to staging this play, with its extensive landscape and frequent changes of locale, and director Clare Maguire hasn't found an effective way to cope with these challenges. Instead, the actors are compensating by pumping in extra energy. The material is not fully trusted; at one stage, Conn the Shaughraun tells a yarn about a horse, and his mother and girlfriend act out the story behind him, while the rest of the cast play instruments. The production is often far too busy.

Juliette Crosbie as Claire Ffolliott and David Fennelly as Captain Molineaux give terrific performances; their developing love scenes are a treat. And Liam Heslin impresses as the Shaughraun with his physical versatility, charming humour and mischief.

Miriam Duffy's costumes are a delightfully eclectic mix of anachronistic frills and create a satisfying playful atmosphere. Ger Clancy's set design doesn't really address the problems of landscape, seascape or location. There are two wooden structures on the stage that become barrows; they are interesting looking, but their dramatic function is unclear.

This is an ambitious undertaking; big companies with pots of money have tackled this play and collapsed into one of its many pitfalls. Like the character of Conn the Shaughraun, the show must be comic and playful, but it also requires ingenuity.


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Olympia Theatre, Dublin, Aug 14 – Sept 1

Pat Shortt stars in this revival of Martin McDonagh’s black comedy. Set in the wild west of Ireland, a gravedigger is suspected of murdering his wife. Directed by Andrew Flynn for Decadent Theatre Company.


The Flowing Tide, Dublin, Aug 14 – 25

The Abbey Theatre’s production of Roddy Doyle’s funny two-hander is set in a pub. It tours on a pub crawl to Carlow, Drogheda, Longford and Derry, then crosses the Irish Sea to Newcastle and Sunderland.

Terrific performances as ladies who lunch

Two American ladies, Alida Slade and Grace Ansley, in their forties and in smart hats, visit Rome with their daughters. The 20-year-old girls have run off with their airman friends, leaving their mothers to enjoy the after-lunch view. The women have been connected for decades and recently widowed.

Coincidentally, their husbands died within weeks of each other. Rome, overlooking the Coliseum, brings back fond memories. They both became engaged in the city. It emerges there is a secret between them; they each know something that the other doesn't.

This was adapted by the late Hugh Leonard from a short story by Edith Wharton, originally published in 1934. Leonard was a practised adaptor, and he has filleted the story for both depth and drama. The revelations build expertly, and while the denouement will be suspected from fairly early on, the twists are a genuine surprise.

Maria Tecce does a terrific job as the mildly embittered Alida. She is disgruntled at being a widow, "so deathly dull", whereas Grace claims to find the dullness "restful". Alida confesses, "I envied you when we were young and you were beautiful, and I never cured myself." She was always conscious that Grace had better looks and did better than her socially. She is now distressed that her own daughter is mousily following about in the shadow of Grace's daughter. For Karen Ardiff as Grace, butter wouldn't melt in her mouth as she sits there knitting in her frumpy shoes. She parries her more restless friend in a gentle fashion, but when the occasion arises, she is well able to thrust the knife deep.

Jack Kirwan's painterly set is a beautiful skyscape over a marble balcony, capturing the bleached Mediterranean light. An Italian waiter, a perky Fabiano Roggio, occasionally brings drinks and biscuits, pampering the ladies but clearly favouring Grace with his attention. Michael James Ford directs with perfect timing.

A thoroughly enjoyable piece of lunchtime fare. My only complaint was that at 40 minutes, I would have happily had a larger helping.

Katy Hayes

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