Sunday 25 February 2018

The art of fleshing out lives of ordinary folk

THEATRE EMER O'KELLY IS IT possible to turn a memory of a much-loved father into a play without becoming self-indulgent? John Mortimer managed it, but he has a lawyer's detachment. To be precise, can an actor/writer who started out as a stand-up comic give flesh and dimension to the story of her very ordinary parents and their very ordinary life in Norwich? If she's Michelle Read, she can.

Play about My Dad, her own production at Project, tells us nothing memorable. Read's parents were teenage sweethearts (her mother threw up all over her father on their first date, having been fed a lethal mixture of Babycham and other toxic brews by her Jack-the-lad escort).

He was a panel beater; they married in 1962, and their daughter was born in 1965. But they must have loved her very much, since she had enough confidence to branch out on her own at the age of 17. (She'd arrived home one day to find them "doing it" standing up in the living room, and figured it was time to leave them to their own shaming devices.)

It's a charming, well-observed piece, given a gently dramatic framework by a set that isnot so much in the round asin the living room, a series of benches and platforms through which Read wanders while seeming to be chatting desultorily,mingling the sequence of her father's death from cancer of the colon with her childhood memories of him.

And it is not going too far to say that the seeming artless-ness is very much the art thatconceals art.

It's directed by Tara Derrington, and if there is a weakness, it's the invitation to the audience to "share" some memories of their own parents at the finish: not so much sugary as tacky. The wonderful design is by Kieran McNulty, with music and sound by Trevor Knight and lighting by Kevin Treacy.

HERE comes a sacrilegious statement: the Tailor of Garrynapeaka was a prurient, lascivious bore. Which is not to say that Eric Cross's account of his life, published in 1942 as The Tailor and Ansty, deserved to be banned.

Nor did the old man, Timothy Buckley by name, deserve tobe humiliated by priests and shunned by his neighbours because of the book.

The late PJ O'Connor adapted it into a play 30 years ago, weaving the anecdotes into a canvas which includes an account of the old man's humiliation and shunning. It makes for sad, sad viewing. It also makes a damn sight better play than the original book, because of what happened to the old man and his wife Ansty.

Ronan Wilmot gives a marvellous, sustained performance as the Tailor, and Nuala Hayes directs, and plays Ansty, doing both with real pace and skill. But what emerges in the New Theatre production at the Civic in Tallaght (which will tour nationally throughout the summer, ending up where it began last year in Gougane Barra) is the classic picture of a self-regarding bore: an old man who thinks he's a great fella altogether for his crude stories which elicit shrieks of scandalised laughter from his neighbours until the heavy hand of the church is laid upon them.

We've all met such self-styled wags, and they're anything but entertaining. And add in a few revealing little gems such as, "They all like it, sure" (about women who "pretend" not to like sex withtheir husbands) and you are chillingly reminded of the man jailed only a few days ago becausehe believed he had a right to rape his wife.

I saw the play some years ago in a production that wasn't a patch on this one, so I was even more irritated by it then. But even in this production, I was forced to the conclusion that when The Tailor and Ansty was described in a Seanad debate in the Forties as "a collection of smut", the speaker hit the nail on the head. The difference is that, nowadays, smut (thank goodness) doesn't merit a Seanad debate or being banned.

As I left I heard a self-satisfied aside, "We've come a long way, haven't we?" as the audience reflected on our censored dark ages. And indeed we have. We've come so far that now we think standards are for the birds. I like to think that the Tailor Timothy Buckley, made notorious 60 years ago as the hero of a "filthy book", would for all his dirty stories have been deeply shocked by a Catholic priest breaking his solemn vow of celibacy and chastity.

ALAN Stanford's latest production of Macbeth for his schools company Second Age is extremely well conceived.

It's at the Helix in Dublin, with Caroline Bronwen Hughes's vaguely 18th-Century costumes lending good atmosphere to Carol Betera's set of platformed towers which interlock to provide keeps, gate towers and banqueting halls.

There are also some good performances overall, although Stanford's direction rushes his cast along at a pace which loses much of the poetry, and nearly all of the characterisation.

It also gives the unfortunate impression for much of the time that we are attending a really excellent first reading, before the cast members have had time to dig deep. This is particularly the case with Aidan Kelly's physically impressive Macbeth. He comes into his own in a raging near desperation towards the end, but the conniving ambition and the creeping helpless terror trip far too lightly across his tongue.

Caitriona Ni Mhurchu's Lady Macbeth is fine until she sleepwalks: this is much more an elderly Ophelia's mad scene than a waking nightmare. And the witches are about as surreal and scary as a trio of 16-year-olds in Saturday night clubland, which is exactly what they look and sound like.

There's solid work from John Olohan and Gerry McCann, and two thoroughly impressive performances from Enda Oates and India Whisker as Macduff and Lady Macduff.

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