Arts Theatre, London WC2
Opened 11 February, 2010

The Arts Theatre has lately been one of the West End’s “cursed” venues, with a succession of productions ranging from the mediocre to the downright rancid; for a while its very future was in doubt. The tiny Union Theatre, in contrast, has been consistently punching above its weight from its home beneath a railway viaduct in Southwark. Could a transfer of a show from the Union help rehabilitate the Arts? On this showing, it deserves to.
Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty’s 2002 musical is based on a 1994 film focusing on Alfie Byrne, a bus conductor in 1960s Dublin. Alfie is unmarried, has a passion for amateur dramatics and in particular Oscar Wilde, and likes to cook... well, as codes go, it’s not exactly the Enigma, is it? When he decides that his church drama group will stage Wilde’s Salomé, a combination of misunderstandings and misfortunes force Alfie and those around him to confront the reality of his identity.
It could simply be a so-so sexual-realisation tale turned into an equally so-so piece of musical theatre. Thankfully, the material is handled by all concerned with intelligence and skill, so that it becomes rather more. Terrence McNally’s book has a handful of unsubtle moments, but many more instances of the opposite. Ahrens and Flaherty’s songs, although written in contemporary stage-musical idiom, are superior examples thereof, and at least one number – in which bus-driver Robbie introduces Alfie to the personalities found on “The Streets of Dublin” – is first-rate in anyone’s book.
Ben De Wynter’s production finds liveliness and sensitivity in all the right places. The larger Arts space has allowed designer James Turner to construct a false proscenium arch for the church hall, but De Wynter cannily uses it only for a few tableaux, realising that his actors need to be downstage where they can connect with us. Paul Clarkson, once one gets past his imperfect Oirish accent, ably conveys Alfie’s inner and outer lives; the St Imelda’s Players are, in the words of one character, “bloody awful” and the actors enjoy portraying broad types (including a choreographer who suggests a tap-Dance of the Seven Veils!) but never devalue their characters. It is a joy to leave the Arts after a show with not black murder but a song in one’s heart.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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