When I first saw John Breen's Alone It Stands, at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh in August 2000, its most obvious reference point was John Godber's Up 'N' Under. Now it has opened for a brief season in the West End's Duchess Theatre, it is more likely to be compared to a production currently running half a mile away, Marie Jones's Stones In His Pockets.
Breen's account of the amateur Munster rugby team's historic 12-0 victory over the All Blacks in Limerick on Hallowe'en 1978 shares a couple of designers with Stones, but also a style and a spirit, at once lampooning and sincerely celebrating a particular conception of Irishness. Each features a tightly drilled company (two actors in Stones, six in Alone... well, you need a fair handful for the actual rugby scenes) turning on a sixpence between multiple roles: here, the game itself is spliced with the stories of various knots of fans and a gang of kids determined to build Limerick's biggest ever Hallowe'en bonfire
The staging of the match is fairly Godberesque, with its stylised freezes, slo-mo and constant narration from the characters; frankly, though, there aren't that many different ways you can show rugby on a stage with a cast of half a dozen. There is little chance for any of the actors to draw breath, and no-one ever leaves the stage through the show (at two hours, slightly longer than the match itself), instead sitting on benches literally on the sidelines of the playing area.
Malcolm Adams has a nice line in portraying a series of hapless, often slightly wimpish characters; Gerry McGann delights as a fan on the terraces whilst his wife is giving birth to twins – "No child of mine," he declares earlier, "would have the bad manners to be born during a match." But the palm goes to Dessie Gallagher, whose main roles are pessimistic fan Lanky ("Scorin' against them... it'll only annoy them") and Munster captain Donal Canniffe, whose very moment of triumph was dashed by the news that his father had suffered a fatal heart attack whilst listening to the (untelevised) match on the radio.
The subject matter may seem on the parochial side, but the human interest and David-and-Goliath aspects ensure a more than agreeable time. Breen's writing and direction are ebullient enough to have carried the piece through two and a half years of life, much of it spent in performance in various rugby clubs across Ireland.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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