Tricycle Theatre, London NW6
Opened 24 February, 2010

Author Pat McCabe admits that his play is partly inspired by the late Tadeusz Kantor’s theatrical piece Dead Class, and Maree Kearns’ set design seems to show some influence... although, to be fair, there are only so many changes you can ring on the theme of an old-fashioned, semi-ghostly, semi-derelict classroom. McCabe’s play follows two teachers in a Dublin church school as Ireland’s social revolution began in the 1960s and ’70s. Raphael Bell is everything that Eamon De Valera’s vision of Ireland could hope for: strict, assiduous, devout and in temperament wrapped tighter than a present from your mum. Malachy Dudgeon is from a later generation, growing up with new freedoms and a liking for Van Morrison. But Raphael is unable to meet the challenge of liberation, and Malachy unable to live within it. Each has parental issues in his past and partner issues in his present, each is traumatised by a child’s death and each goes off his rocker.
Padraic McIntyre’s production toured Ireland to great acclaim a couple of years ago, and now comes to London’s favourite Irish theatre. It’s excellently done: as Raphael, Sean Campion is as consistently watchable as ever, Nick Lee mostly manages to keep up with him as Malachy and the other three performers take a plethora of roles between them. And McCabe’s writing and themes alike are deeply evocative. But herein lies the problem: the piece cannot evoke what is not already in a viewer’s consciousness or subconscious to be evoked. Even one as keen to (over)play the Irish card as me must acknowledge that the old certainties and values of Raphael’s world – a Hibernian version of Kinder, Küche, Kirche – have nothing like as much purchase on the British communal memory. This world is not and was not ours. Once that lack of connection is granted, further reservations mount up. Why does a supernatural tempter/trickster character periodically climb through a window and recite rhymes? Raphael’s wife disappears from the stage for an age after an incompletely explained birth scene: on her reappearance, is she still alive or a figment? (Alive, but it took me a while to be sure.) Above all, could the evening not lose half an hour or so? Certainly not the happiest days of the protagonists’ lives, nor, I’m afraid, of this spectator’s.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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