Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond
Opened 8 February, 2008

In husband-and-wife team Matthew Strachan and Bernie Gaughan’s musical, the first music we hear is the voice of tenor Josef Locke coming tinnily from a radio, placing us in a particular Irish culture and period. It is the 1950s in Crumlin, southside Dublin, and we are spectators to a classic bout of neighbourly contention between the snooty Hennessys and the O’Briens, shabbier but ruled with a rod of iron by their fiercely assertive mother. When the local paper announces a bonny-baby contest, any halfway practised eye can see that the drama will not be about which family’s sprog will win, but which will turn out to be illegitimate: Max Hennessy, whose young mother attained widowhood with indecent haste, or Conor O’Brien, whose “Ma” seems on the old side to have borne him and inexplicably keeps berating elder daughter Orla.
As a story, it is packed with toothsome ingredients. There’s the feud, and the inevitable awkward friendship struck up between Orla and Miriam Hennessy. Riona O’Connor is excellent in the former role, making a compelling emotional journey and holding her own opposite the formidable Louise Gold as her battleaxe mother; Emily Sills as Miriam has little more than everyday saintliness to her character, but gets the show’s most powerful musical number in “Passion”, a duet with her abusive estranged husband (oops, I’ve given it away). There are secrets, dreams, determination to win through in the face of various oppressions… No doubt about it, Gaughan’s script (originally a radio play) is a grabber.
Strachan’s songs, I’m afraid, do not match it. His programme notes claim that he deliberately avoided any hint of post-1955 pop music, but virtually the entire score sounds like post-1980 musical theatre. The songs are products of the kingdom of Sondheim, where lyrics entwine themselves in sheepshanks of metre and rhyme but if you’re not careful you end up with successions of notes rather than tunes. Songs and script are well integrated in terms of narrative, character and emotion, but it’s the story that consistently makes the running. It is entirely deserved that the Orange Tree has been spared the Arts Council funding axe, but this is an instance where the imagination of its programming is somewhat ahead of its impact in production.
Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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