Posts Tagged ‘Conor McPherson’

This play with music places songs by Bob Dylan into a story set in his home town in 1934, seven years before he was born. The title comes from Dylan’s version of Scarborough Fair, but here the north country is Duluth, Minnesota and 1934 was in the middle of the Great Depression. It’s bleak and beautiful.

Nick runs a boarding house, up to his eyeballs in debt. His wife Elizabeth has dementia, his son Gene is an unemployed wannabe writer with a drink problem and his adopted daughter Marianne (a black baby abandoned at the boarding house) is pregnant. All of his guests are down on their luck. Widow Mrs Neilson is waiting for her inheritance, having an affair with Nick while she waits. Mr & Mrs Burke are waiting for money they’re owed; they have an adult son Elias with severe learning difficulties. Bible seller Rev Marlowe and boxer Joe Scott turn up late one night. They might not be who they say they are. Joe takes a shine to Marianne, though Nick has other plans for her. Then there’s the doctor, who acts as our narrator.

It’s great storytelling, as we’ve come to expect from Conor McPherson, and somehow the songs, written 30 to 60 years later, fit the time, place and characters like a glove, though they aren’t sung in character or even by one character; they’re not there to propel the narrative, more for atmosphere. McPherson directs too, and for a playwright he makes a mighty fine director, unusual in my experience! The arrangements and orchestrations by Simon Hale have a period feel and they are are beautiful, breathing new life into the songs. The band wrap around the outstanding vocals, always accompanying, never drowning. The staging, and Rae Smith’s design, reminded me of the musical Once – simple but atmospheric, particularly the photographic panels that come and go.

I’m not sure where to start with the performances; it is such a superb ensemble, benefiting I think for limited musical theatre experience and bad habits! Perhaps I should start with Karl Queensborough, an understudy playing Joe, who really was excellent. Ciaran Hinds has great presence as Nick and towers over diminutive Shirley Henderson as his wife, who is unpredictable and edgy and has the most sensational voice which I’m not sure has ever been heard on stage before. Sam Reid is great too as Gene, delivering I Want You so well a woman in the front stalls said out loud a perhaps unintended ‘wonderful’. Sheila Atim, also in fine voice, is ever so good as Marianne and Stanley Townsend, Bronagh Gallagher and Jack Shalloo give a fine trio of performances as the Burkes. Probably the most experienced musical theatre performer, the great Debbie Kurup, delivers Dylan’s songs beautifully.

Some may call it a musical, some the now derogatory term juke-box musical, for me its a play with music and its it’s own thing, something unique, and I loved it.


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I’m not sure I’ve seen anything by German playwright Franz Xaver Kroetz before. This one, translated by acclaimed Irish writer Conor McPherson, hails from 1975, though it’s a pretty timeless tale, and a rather good play.

Kurt & Martha are about to have their first child. They tally the expenses they are about to incur, insisting as they do that there’ll be no hand-me-downs. Martha works from home making market research calls, earning a pittance, so lorry driver Kurt takes all the overtime he can get, until a secret assignment brings consequences he could not possibly have predicted. It threatens his marriage, he’s wracked with guilt and remorse and he has to make a big choice about whether to keep the secret or not, with potentially dire consequences whatever action he takes. The pressures to do the best for your family are all too real, and the lengths people will go to very believable.

It’s beautifully performed by Laurence Kinlan, who navigates his character’s emotional roller-coaster really well, and Caoilfhionn Dunne, who’s character’s challenge is how to respond to her husband’s dilemma. There’s an atmospheric soundtrack by P J Harvey no less, which I thought added much to the tension, and both Ian Rickson’s direction and Alyson Cummins’ design serve the play well, bringing you into their home and out into the countryside. 

A very thought-provoking piece which is definitely worth catching.

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The reason I liked this more than Conor McPherson’s other plays is because it’s got less words! For once, he allows his characters to breathe and to interact, and his actors to to act with more than mere words. No monologue(s) here.

Tommy is separated from his wife (and children) and now occupies a room in his Uncle Maurice’s house. It’s a real tip into which he brings Aimee, who has been attacked by person(s) initially unknown. He protects, comforts and befriends her. His friend and fellow odd job man Doc (the explanation of why he’s called Doc is a hoot) seems to stay much of the time. Uncle Maurice pays the occasional visit from upstairs. Aimee’s arrival turns this bachelor world upside down.

Not a lot happens in 105 minutes. It’s very Beckett. The characters, their relationships and their predicament, though, are enough to carry it. Four lonely people co-habiting randomly. It’s got real atmosphere in Soutra Gilmour’s big, tall ramshackle room. There’s something very intriguing and enthralling about it all, due in no small part to the performances of Ciaran Hinds, a big man with real presence, as Tommy and Caoilfhionn Dunne as the hapless Doc.

It seems to me the reason why most people like his earlier work more than this is the reason why I prefer this. I look to the theatre for drama not literature; if I want the latter, I read a book.

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I didn’t join in with the seemingly universal euphoria when I saw this play’s premiere 16 years ago at the Royal Court. I warmed to it more in this finely cast revival in the Donmar’s perfect intimate space, but I still can’t see it as the modern classic it’s claimed to me.

You’re virtually inside Tom Scutt’s hyper-realistic pub; it’s as if they built the seating around it rather than built the set on stage. The play starts with a bit of inconsequential everyday business and chatter between publican Brendan and customer Jack. They are joined by another customer Jim, and Jack announces that boy-made-good hotelier Finbar is showing a new lady resident around and will soon be joining them. They speculate on his motives with just a touch of distaste and jealousy.

When Finbar and Valerie arrive, she becomes the focus of attention as they seek to uncover her story and impress her with their stories of fairies and ghosts. The play turns when Valerie tells her tale, which reveals her tragedy. When Finbar and Jim leave, Jack tells his own real story of an unfulfilled life and loneliness as Brendan, who seems to be heading for the same fate, looks on.

This time, the real lives of the three lonely men struck me more. Jim looking after mammy, Jack unable to make the break and escape when he could and Brendan tied to the family pub with visits from his sisters guarding their share. I also enjoyed the running joke of the arrival of the German tourists and the brilliant final reference to them. In the end though, it’s still a bunch of blokes in a pub telling stories, which doesn’t make a modern classic in my book.

The chief pleasure for me was the performances. It’s great to see Brian Cox back on stage in a role that really suits him. It’s good to watch the relatively unsung Peter McDonald develop his craft. Risteard Cooper impresses as he did in his English debut in the NT’s Juno and Dervla Kirwan pulls off the difficult task of portraying her character’s sadness alongside all of the banter. Ardel O’Hanlon was a bit one-note for me, but it didn’t deter from the overall effect of a fine ensemble.

It should really be called ‘The Irish’ because in the end it’s just the Irishness brand on stage – charming, wistful, nostalgic, self-deprecating, conservative. The gift of the gab indeed.

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There are lots of interesting strands to this Conor McPherson play. It’s set in colonial Ireland in the early 19th century where the landowners and their tenant farmers are struggling, the former to maintain their aristocratic lifestyles and the latter to survive. Against this sociopolitical backdrop, there’s the story of one family’s solution to their economic crisis (marry off the daughter!) and the hopelessness of love across the class divide. Add to that a supernatural layer, and you have the recipe for what should be a very good play.

Where it goes wrong is that it doesn’t make enough of the sociopolitical background and over-plays the supernatural, with a touch of implausibility in the way it handles the infatuation of a member of staff for his mistress. A lot revolves around the defrocked priest and his chum, who come to escort the daughter to her wedding in England, but I never really believed in them. The daughter’s relationship with her mother also seems a lot less respectful than you would expect at this time, as was the over-familiarity between the staff and the family.

Rae Smith’s design brilliantly evokes the stately home in decline, just grand enough but just shabby enough too. The performances of Brid Brennan, Peter McDonald and Caoilfhionn Dunne as the staff are excellent, and Ursula Jones is terrific as the virtually wordless grandmother with a nice range of expressions from indignant to wicked and everything in between. The rest of the performances didn’t convince me though.

It kept my attention but it didn’t really satisfy me. This may be another case where the playwright should not be allowed to direct his own work – no challenge and all that.  A bit of a disappointment, I’m afraid.

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