Thursday 20 September 2018

Theatre Review: Undemanding charm of Far Off Hills

Undemanding fun: The Far Off Hills, with, from left, Steve Blount, Caoimhe O’Malley, Niamh McGrath, and Julie Sharkey
Undemanding fun: The Far Off Hills, with, from left, Steve Blount, Caoimhe O’Malley, Niamh McGrath, and Julie Sharkey

Emer O'Kelly

Why has Lennox Robinson been so neglected and under-rated by Irish theatre over the years; apart from his being Protestant, neurotic, and a bit spiteful, that is?

Those personal qualities didn't make him unique among playwrights and directors in Ireland,  or within the Abbey. But his writing talent glowed, and came damn close to being unique in its wry, understated observance of small-town and rural Irish society in the first half of the 20th Century. His plays are set in the Ireland in which he grew up - middle-class families of comfortable means, with conservatories, tennis courts, and pretty gardens.

Robinson hit the nail on that head, whether in serious or comic vein, and most of the time, there was a faint but recognisable core of irony in the work which saved its gentle perspicacity from disintegrating into sentimentality.

So Loco and Reckless Productions (in association with the Nomad network) are doing a considerable service in their current tour by re-introducing audiences to The Far Off Hills, in an only slightly tongue-in- cheek production by Mikel Murfi, with the four cast members playing all 10 characters….and very creditably indeed.

Nowadays, Hollywood would call the play a romcom, with the young(ish) widower Patrick Clancy nobly writing himself off as husband material because he is awaiting a cataract operation on his eyes, and is currently (and possibly permanently) blind. (This is 1928.)

Sanctimonious 22-year- old eldest daughter Marion wants to be a nun, but is sacrificing herself on the altar of family duty to care for him and her two flighty teenage sisters, neither of whom is particularly grateful for the sacrifice. And then there's lovely, staunch (and not quite on the shelf) family friend Susie. And to add to the mix, Susie's dashing 22-year-old nephew hoves into view.

It's lovely, undemanding, charming fun delivered with considerably adroit aplomb, particularly by Steve Blount in the two main male roles, and Niamh McGrath as Susie and young "Pet", with Caoimhe O'Malley as prissy Marian, and Julie Sharkey completing the cast. It's lit by Nick McCall and designed by Sabine Dargent.

The Far Off Hills was at Draiocht in Blanchardstown, and will tour to Longford, Castlebar, Letterkenny, and Virginia, Co Cavan.



Marie Jones doesn't exactly specialise in subtlety or depth as a playwright, even when she is working in what could be considered her international mode. So there is certainly no reason to expect either of those qualitites in a piece of local (very local) froth for her native Belfast at Christmas.

But even in a play which is clearly manufactured as a showcase of "turns" for local talent, it should be possible to produce some credibility, maybe even a bit of a class of a plotline, (as we say in Dublin).

But Mistletoe and Crime at the Lyric is a pretty leaden affair, based on two female PSNI WPCs on the beat on Christmas Eve in the centre of Belfast, and the supposedly tragi-comical people they come across.

Unfortunately, the author's less than subtle approach does not take on board the fact that a homeless tramp telling the police they'll be sorry when he's found dead of cold the next morning, because they're refusing to arrest him, is actually not funny, any more than an officious rookie WPC breathalysing a distraught man out looking for his dementia-suffering mother who is wandering the streets without outer clothing is funny … the breathalaysing apparently undertaken mainly because he's middle class. (Jones' writing often seems to reflect a remarkably jaundiced view of middle-class people.) Nor does one partner throwing another out on the street become hilarious simply because the couple is lesbian.

Further, the acting is strained from all the cast, led by Katie Tumelty and Tara Lynne O'Neill as the policewomen. Dan Gordon's direction is no better.

Nobody wants demanding fare for a Christmas offering; but undemanding doesn't have to be flat and dull.

This is not a criticism of the Lyric's Artistic Director Jimmy Fay, whose programming in his first year in Belfast I unfortunately did not manage to see due to other pressures. He's not the first artistic director in a city to bow to parochialism at the festive season.



Steven Berkoff's Harry's Christmas is reminiscent of his autobiographical "play" The Actor's Lament transferred to a third person character, and set at Christmas.

The Actor's Lament was a long, vitriolic, self-pitying dirge. Harry's Christmas is exactly the same thing, with the eponymous character beginning with an (over-written) whinge that he has received only six Christmas cards, followed by self-obsessed ruminations about how to find company for Christmas, because for some reason nobody seems to want him. Guess why: he's a selfish, unpleasant, mean-minded, bad-tempered swine; you can get how the whine ends on Christmas Day.

It's such a plodding, boring piece that it's obvious what is going to happen. It's at lunctime at Bewleys Cafe Theatre in Dublin, played quite well by Malcolm Adams. But one wonders why anyone would bother.

Sunday Independent

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