The Heelers Diaries

the fantasy world of ireland's greatest living poet

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Location: Kilcullen (Phone 087 7790766), County Kildare, Ireland

Sunday, April 24, 2016

theatre review

(James Healy reviews John McManus' play The Quare Land)

Reviewing plays in the dulcet South Kildare hamlet of Kilcullen is something of an adventure sport.
It is a task best not taken lightly.
Kilcullen thesps and their lady directors occasionally shoot back.
A slip of the tongue could cost you your Free Haircuts For Life voucher at a local salon.
A gentle bon mot about Maurice O'Mahoney's acting might see you vilified in print in an otherwise occasionally excellent community magazine.
An original insight about life in general that you haven't checked first with the cultural thought police will surely result in you being drummed out of the Rah or the Prayer Group (Same thing in Kilcullen - Ed note) or whatever and shot at dawn.
Or so I have found 
Best not to overthink the matter. Shut your eyes . Dive right in. What's the worst they can do to me? Insist I pay for the haircuts I owe them for?  Bore me to death with their mafioso fake patriotism? I laugh at such blandishments.  What's a blandishment? Never mind. Onward!
Once more into the breech once more, we'll stop their overacting with our Saxon dead.
Well, you know what I mean.
A long and winding, and somewhat unlikely, road has led to the present incarnation on the Kilcullen stage of John McManus' darkly comic play The Quare Land.
Some months ago Kilcullen expatriate Donal Saint Leger bought a ticket to an off Broadway version of the play for Kilcullen director Eilis Phillips who was visiting him in New York. Eilis Phillips liked what she saw and contacted the playwright. who forwarded the play and agreed to sell the rights.
At this point someone passed it to me for an unofficial opinion.The work was not entirely to my liking. McManus' profanity laced depiction of negotiations in a bathroom between an elderly farmer and a younger businessman who wants to buy his field was not really my cup of theatrical tea. But I did my best to be encouraging.
Having first exacted a promise that he would never tell Eilis Phillips what I said, I told the person who passed me the play: "Do not do this play. It is tasteless, profane, blasphemous trash. Don't do it under any circumstances."
And here we are.
The biggest hit to grace the Town Hall Theatre in a decade.
How on earth did it happen?
That is the question at the core of my review
For something did happen.
Something magical. Something rare. Something for me wholly unexpected.
Pure theatre alchemy.
And I'm still not sure quite how they did it.
Let me hazard a few guesses.
In the present production by Kilcullen Drama Group, John McManus script somehow moved from a pessimistic gleefully malevolent schadenfreude evocation of the battle between Traditional and Modern Ireland as exemplified by his two protagonists Hugh Pugh and Rob McNulty, to a joyful celebration of the human condition, subtly laced with an homage to the grandest tricks of the theatre trade, as exemplified by Bernard Berney and Vivian Clarke's wonderfully inventive, wizardly comic interpretations of McManus characters the roguish farmer and cowboy property developer.
For me Vivian Clarke and Bernard Berney turned Mr McManus dark vision into light.
I'm just not sure what their director thought.
Yet she must have known what she was doing when she cast them in the roles.
Mustn't she?
Casting two essentially uncontrollable exuberantly comic actors against type in a pessimistic noir drama was either an act of high vision or utter madness.
Out of such paradoxes theatre gold is born.
The casting of Bernard Berney and Vivian Clarke served another purpose too. It made the regional audience willing to enter McManus' world of darkness where they would soon be so pleasantly surprised. I don't think they'd have gone in there otherwise.
There were rewrites too which I would expect with Mr Berney involved. His adjustments, if they were his, were gems. I'm told the playwright John McManus who attended the Kilcullen show at times looked sick as a parrot. He was like a man seeing his own play for the first time. I hope he learned something.
The Quare Land is a two man play and the two men cast in the roles brought a focus to their work which might have been difficult with a larger cast. Mr Clarke's evocation of ambition thwarted by the most unikely of opponents showed moments of great artistry and superb instinctive playing. His rapport with his co star was matched only by his rapport with the audience. His ability in one scene to move from comic playing to pathos to drama and back again was seamless. His character's speech about the collapse of his family life in the face of business pressures was a tour de force.
Bernard Berney has perhaps had bigger successes with Kilcullen Drama Group but his performance in The Quare Land will remain a personal favourite for me. Against all the odds of course, since I initially hated the material. Mr Berney's acting had a relaxed quality and an ease to it that enaged the audience from the outset. He has a Frank Carson-esque ability to make old jokes seem new again. His verve and energy were finely honed for this performance. His natural spontaneity and anarchic charisma had been harnessed and directed into a mature and assured portrayal of Hugh Pugh. He was on top of his game. At one point he created a most poignant vignette as he sang a love song to an image of the singer Enya on a record album cover. The moment transcended several genres and belonged to none but it was beautiful here.
"She's a saint," his character mused as he finished singing.
"The patron saint of songs that all sound the f---ing same," answered Mr Clarke.
Letitia Hanratty's set was a perfect recreation of a mountainy man's hovel. Take it from me. I'm a mountainy man and I live in one. Her door at the rear of the stage could have been more visible though. We mountainy men like our doors where we can see them.
The family team of Emer and Tara Mucke, and Mischa Fekete handled lighting and sound effects with aplomb. The lighting was unobtrusive but always effective. The lighting plan was neatly orchestrated, executed and designed. An interesting touch was added by the use of back lights which left Mr Clarke's face slightly in shadow at times.My only quibble with the sound effects is that I'd have preferred a real person doing dog sounds in the wings, to the recorded sounds that were actually used.
At two hours running time, I thought the play was a bit long. Two hours is a long time to ask anyone to laugh. When director Eilis Phillips wrote her letter of complaint to the Bridge about my review of her last production I thought it was great good fun. But I still only laughed for about an hour at her letter. An hour and and a half would have been a good running time for the present production which in any case was also great good fun.

(Photo left to right: Vivian Clarke, the pop singer Enya, and Bernard Berney in The Quare Land)


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