Hampstead Theatre, London NW3
Opened 11 June, 1996

The major trap for a one-person biographical show to avoid is beginning with the words "I was born...". Niall Buggy, as Sean O'Casey, circles the line for a couple of minutes whilst welcoming his audience, modulates it to an affable "I was born in, ah, 1880, I think it was," and proceeds to give a grandly oratorical account of his birth; but the poetry and personableness cannot conceal the fact that this is at root a pretty conventional chronological trot through the Irish dramatist's life.

Devised and directed by O'Casey's daughter Shivaun, Song At Sunset weaves biographical detail together with extracts from her father's plays and letters, and even a few songs which Buggy delivers unaccompanied in a serviceable baritone (although at one point he gives a fine impersonation of O'Casey's elder brother belting out a ditty in the fin-de-siècle Irish equivalent of a club-singer's unintelligible croon). Yet, strangely given the director's intimacy with the subject, the show feels somewhat distanced from O'Casey himself. Apart from a pair of little round glasses, no attempt at physical resemblance is made; Buggy even recounts the childhood of young John Casey (as he then was) in the third person.

Buggy, occasionally glancing at a large bound notebook (presumably for prompts), is at his best when the material takes a turn for the dramatic: acting out both parts in a dialogue between young John's mother and a minister from his school or scenes from The Shadow Of A Gunman and Juno And The Paycock, impersonating W.B. Yeats's famous speech to the rioting Abbey Theatre audience at a performance of The Plough And The Stars or reading in character a supportive letter from George Bernard Shaw. At other times, assiduously though he deploys his considerable skills to bring O'Casey before us as a real person, the script retains the flavour of third-person biography made explicit in its earlier passages. We see the thread twisted through O'Casey's life of his problematic relationship with various strains of Irish nationalism and with the Saxon oppressors (he lived the second half of his life in England), we hear of the horrors of losing his father in childhood and his son in his last years, but all of these things are told albeit with conviction rather than shown.

Every few years, British television screens a biography of an Irish literary figure Joyce, Beckett produced by Seán Ó Mórdha of RTE; his style, though discreet, is distinctive. With its minimal staging and sparing use of incidental music (other than O'Casey's own renditions), Song At Sunset feels like such a programme: it is informative and entertaining in a "readerly" sort of way, but curiously fails to make its subject come alive.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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