Barabbas... the company [sic] introduce their production of The Whiteheaded Boy as "a well-made play in three acts by Lennox Robinson," in a way which leaves little doubt that it will be remade along quite different lines in the ensuing two and a half hours. Under Gerard Stembridge's direction, the quartet of actors admirably resist the temptation to use the piece (dating from 1916) merely as a hook on which to hang their clowning skills; they take sizeable liberties, to be sure, but always work along with the grain of the play.
Louis Lovett as the eponymous favourite of his mammy is the only actor restricted to a single role; he appears late in Act One, having returned to his Irish home village after failing his medical exams for the third time, and pops up periodically thereafter to frustrate with a feckless charm all plans for him to make his own way in the world. The bulk of the action revolves around the conflicting, chaotic scheming and misunderstandings which abound in his extended family.
The remaining eleven parts are taken by just three actors, who frequently have to turn on a sixpence between characters: at one point Mikel Murfi – blessed with the marvellous ability to sketch an entire persona with two quick paces and a simper – finds himself simultaneously playing a brother and two sisters, at another Raymond Keane has to open the door to a visit from himself. Veronica Coburn gives the illusion of taking things slightly easier, whilst in reality notching up more roles than either of her colleagues. The trio pass discreet, amused and amusing comment at the shenanigans of the characters they play, egging each other on and warning each other off; in the final act Murfi, impatient to see a wooing scene, physically picks Keane up at the knees and carries him across the stage so he can get on with it. Scenes are set and explained around a doll's-house set which sits at one side of the stage, before the actors proceed with the drama proper.
Left to its own devices, Robinson's play would no doubt still work after its own lights as a quaint, gentle family comedy; Barabbas, however, blend fun and fidelity, taking the work both seriously and joyously at once. Too many British companies in the same field treat their physical and visual comedy skills as an end in themselves rather than employing them in the service of an existing work; they might do well to learn from their Irish counterparts here.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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