Friel’s trilogy a triumph

Review of the Brian Friel trilogy from Sunday Business Post 07/09: Brian Friel turned 80 this year and, as part of its tribute to the playwright, the Gate Theatre has reprised three works from his back catalogue: Faith Healer, Afterplay and The Yalta Game. After opening at the Sydney Festival, the trilogy transferred to Edinburgh’s King’s Theatre for the International Festival, which ends today.

Afterplay

Directed by Garry Hynes

Selected dates from September 12-19

Rating: ****

Anton Chekhov has provided inspiration and source material for many of Friel’s greatest theatrical triumphs. In Afterplay, he performs an impressive feat of theatrical alchemy, recovering characters from his two most famous adaptations to create a work that is as novel and inventive as it is poignant and touching.

afterplay120A dilapidated Moscow cafe is the scene of a chance encounter between a strong willed, prickly middle-aged woman – lovesick Sonya Serebriakova from Uncle Vanya – and a bumbling fantasist, Andrey Prozorov, spendthrift brother of the infamous Three Sisters.

With subtlety and verve, Niall Buggy and Frances Barber bring to life two souls haunted by pasts they can neither reconcile with, nor move on from. The financial legacy of her uncle’s hubris weighs heavily on Sonya’s shoulders, while Andrey pines visibly for a wife who has long since abandoned him.

Over the course of an hour and several large vodkas, each character’s sad collection of ‘fables’, ‘fictions’, ‘untruths’ and ‘lies’ unravel slowly and painfully. Andrey, it turns out, is not starring in La Boheme – he busks on the street so he can visit his jailbird son. And Sonya is hopelessly in love with her uncle’s drunken, married doctor.

Friel shows us individuals lost in their own imaginary worlds, waiting expectantly for the realisation of a hope that will almost certainly go unfulfilled. This fact Sonya accepts readily, if melancholically: ‘‘It is not the most satisfactory way to get through a life, but it is away.”

Garry Hynes’s unfussy direction complements Friel’s exquisite writing by drawing out its emotional depth without suppressing its lighter moments. Such intricate intermingling of light and shade, fantasy and reality, marks Afterplay out as so much more than a clever theatrical conceit well executed.

The Russian master would surely have approved.

The Yalta Game

Directed by Patrick Mason Selected dates from September 13-19

Rating: ****

Based on Chekhov’s short story Lady with Lapdog, The Yalta Game debuted in Dublin in 2001. The play takes its name from a novel game of seduction pursued by charismatic Muscovite Dmitri Dmitrich Gurov along the Crimean resort’s bustling promenades .With a love interest in tow, Dmitri gazes at wandering holiday makers and invents spurious, often titillating back stories for them.

During one such ‘‘daylong diversion’’, Dmitri befriends Anna Sergeyevna, an innocent young woman from near St Petersburg on a sabbatical from her older, domineering husband. In the unreal world of Yalta’s casinos and ferries, their flirtation quickly develops into a full-blown holiday romance.

But when Anna’s ailing spouse calls her home, the relationship with Dmitri is over. Or is it?
The-Yalta-Game-200
Faced with the mundane reality of their married lives, both characters slip into a world of imagination, a world where they are together forever in a perfect (and impossible) union. Lost in his fantasies, the once cocksure Dmitri is driven by love – or more accurately longing – to doubt everything in his life: ‘‘things that once seemed real now become imagined things.”

Over 50 finely-crafted minutes, Friel reveals the depressing emptiness that leads Anna and Dmitri into a long-distance affair that both know is doomed but neither can end. It all flows elegantly, aided by Patrick Mason’s simple production and Liz Ascroft’s spartan set – a handful of bare wooden chairs sit scattered across the stage.

Both players are excellent: Ristéard Cooper’s Dmitri is animated, loquacious and confident, Rebecca O’Mara’s Anna the perfect mix of vulnerable beauty and coldhearted duplicity.

The Yalta Game is a short play, and the razor-sharp exchanges between the couple are delivered almost without skipping a breath. This reviewer would have preferred more time to savour the dialogue’s cut and thrust. But then time is the one thing star-crossed lovers never have to spare.

If You Can't Stand the Heat…

Picture the scene: You’re a comedian on your first run in Edinburgh. It’s not going so well. Most shows are made up of mates on comps and the odd, stray lunchtime punter. One day you have a solitary paying customer (and no mates). You have to cancel that show.

You are not getting reviewed – cause you’re a nobody in a town of 3,000 performers. Finally you get a review in a popular Edinburgh publication, it’s a not a good review but it’s not a bad one. A bog-standard, two-star review, because you’re a bog-standard, two-star comic.

mike bubbinsWhat do you do: (a) read the review, heed the advice (and the lack of customers) and decide to rethink your act (or maybe you career) or do you (b) scrawl a nonsensical, error-strewn rant at the journo who wrote the review telling all about your pitiful Fringe run…..well if your name is the unfortunate Mike Bubbins you choose the latter…

For anyone who wants to read Mike’s rant about my review of his show (from last week’s the List) in its foaming entirety check it out here http://blogs.walesonline.co.uk/mikebubbins/2009/08/amixed-bag.html

The condensed version goes something like this: ‘If the author, Peter Geogehan(sic), had said that to me during one of the hundred plus hours I have spent writing and re-writing my set since Christmas, he would find out fairly quickly that, compared to the bespectacled, emaciated, pasty Mr Geogehan (And he is. I Googled him. For ages) I am very much not lacking in the punch department. After wishing a fatal industrial accident on my old mate Pete, I consoled myself with the knowledge that all reviewers are sad wannabes, without the courage, or talent to actually do what it is they are giving their ‘expert’ opinions on.’

Poor Mike, if you can’t stand the heat mate I really would get out of the kitchen…googling your reviewers (would help if you got my name right) and then mocking them as ‘pasty’ and ‘bespectacled’ is not big, hard…or funny…as for the threat to punch me, well Mr B that’s just very juvenile, isn’t it?

And his barely legible ramblings don’t get much better: ‘There is a lot of competition in Edinburgh. A LOT of competition. Over 2000 shows this year. But that includes a LOT of rubbish, and my show isn’t.’ (All correct…and if he had read my review I didn’t say it was rubbish…’under-written’ and ‘lacking punch’ are not the same thing).

‘Settle down Geogehan, or I will smash your glasses.’ Well done Mike, another schoolyard threat and still making spelling mistakes (the piece is littered with them – learn to spell check B-man).

‘But nobody knows me up here….You have never seen a more pitiful sight that grown men and women poring through a paper, desperate to find out what some unknown person’s opinion of them is.’

Yes, Mike the problem is yours not mine. I’m doing my job – if you did yours better you wouldn’t be getting your knickers in such a twist. But just when it looks like Mike is smelling the coffee he loses the rag again:

‘The fact that no-one outside of Edinburgh has even heard of Three Weeks or downmarket, lying, hack-written rag The List, means nothin’….

It goes on in this style for a couple of hundred words (including a rather pathetic admission to getting tutorials from comic Rhod Gilbert during the middle of his run) before ending with this corker:

‘I can neither confirm nor deny that this is the same part-time, freelance, ‘writer’ and Milhouse lookalike Peter Geogehan who is notorious for being a persistent bed-wetter and who has an unhealthy interest in farmyard animals.’

ah Mike, Mike, you just can’t leave the schoolyard….lucky I have a full-time job to keep me busy…and by the way it’s GEOGHEGAN

Some more Edinburgh reviews

I’m still in Edinburgh reviewing away, here’s a couple of other pieces from The List

Phil Nichol

‘Tonight Matthew, I’m going to be Bobby Spade.’ Phil Nichol’s transformation into a white-suited lounge lizard with a sideline in psychopathy, is so complete that all that’s missing is the trademark Stars in Their Eyes dry-ice intro. Accompanied by jazz piano and double-bass, the Canadian comic unfurls his man’s tragic back-story – an abusive mother, a series of ‘uncles’, a string of failed marriages – in hilarious verse, riotous song and priceless one-liners.

philnichol--TLST034895Early offering ‘My Show’ – a paean with enough egomania to fill a clutch of gangsta rap records – is pure Spade: misogynistic, lecherous, unnerving, and deeply, consistently funny. From then on in it’s a rollercoaster ride of black comedy gold with beat poetry about adultery and incest, rockabilly ditties redolent of an incurably demented Johnny Cash and a witty meditation on Helen Keller’s husband. Nichol’s stand-up is certainly an acquired taste but in Spade he has found the perfect vehicle for his substantial lyrical gifts. There is physicality to his humour too. While reciting a punk poem entitled ‘Do Everything You’re Not Supposed To’, he grits his teeth and butts the air like an angsty teenager at a My Chemical Romance gig.

The laughs come thick and fast throughout, aided and abetted by a string of one-liners so depraved Jerry Sadowitz would think twice before using them – but so good he’d never pass them up. Nichol even creates a new literary form in the ‘pong’ (a poem/song hybrid) during which he admits: ‘This show won’t make you think/It’s just something I wrote when I’d too much to drink’. Bobby Spade may not be the most cerebral character on this year’s Fringe, but he could well be the funniest. (Peter Geoghegan)

The Stand II, 558 7272, until 30 Aug, 9pm, £10.

David Longley
Acid-tongued and sharp as a barrelful of tacks, Englishman Longley is a comedian with an axe to grind. His rants on everything from politics to pregnancy don’t always hit the bullseye, but his witty one-liners keep the laughs ticking over.

The Stand III & IV, 558 7272, until 30 Aug (not 17), 8.35pm, £7 (£6).

Mike Bubbins
Stocky Welshman Bubbins is the spit of The King of Queens’ Kevin James and, unfortunately, his Fringe debut is about as adventurous as the tepid US sitcom. The former PE teacher’s tales of daytime TV, smalltown life and material strife are often underwritten and lack punch, but a natural charm and confident delivery just about sees him through.

The GRV, 226 0000, until 30 Aug, 1.40pm, £5.

Janey Godley
godleys-janeygodleyphoto1-cTThis straight-talking Glaswegian is not one to mince her words: so when she tells you about unwittingly smoking crack or catching Mexican swine flu you’re inclined to believe her. Immensely likeable, Godley’s well-crafted anecdotes are sharp and engaging enough to cover an occasional lack of originality.

Pleasance Dome, 556 6550, until 31 Aug, 7pm, £11–£12 (£9.50–£10.50).

Edinburgh Fringe Reviews

At the moment I’m over in Edinburgh covering the fringe. Biggest doesn’t always mean best – I’ve seen plenty of dross already – but it’s still a great festival. Here’s a couple of reviews I’ve done for the popular Scottish arts guide The List

Hannah Gadsby Does Mother Really Know Best?
Hannah Gadsby’s domineering, Catholic mammy has plenty to answer for. She dressed her youngest daughter in beige tracksuits and pleated purple golf shorts, treated serious injuries with Tupperware and spoke in an hannah-gadsby1_thumbunintelligible personal code: you’ll never guess what the show’s rather odd title, Kiss Me Quick I’m Full of Jubes, means in Mrs Gadsby’s world. Those parenting skills may have bordered on negligence but they did gift this amiable Antipodean a rich seam of comic gold, which she mines with aplomb.

With a self-deprecation that borders on flagellation, the chunky, bespectacled Gadsby goes from childhood in Tasmania (‘famous for its frighteningly small gene pool’) to eventually coming out to her stiflingly conventional family. Along the way we hear about a traumatic recent encounter with a personal trainer and the BMI (‘I’m 56% fat-free’ she announces with a mix of pride and weary resignation) and an alarmingly lengthy history of accidents and ailments. A lesser talent might have turned mother into a one-dimensional monster: instead Gatsby, with deadpan delivery and razor-sharp wit, makes her the basis of a minor comic masterpiece.

Assembly Rooms, 623 3030, until 30 Aug (not 17), 7.20pm, £10–£11 (£9–£10).

Socially Retarded
You’d expect plenty of cringing in a sketch show about awkward situations, but too often this fresh-faced, well-spoken duo are the ones left shifting uncomfortably. Even their enthusiastic delivery and game attempts at audience participation can’t lift weak riffs on predictable material: the holy trinity of sex, death and Facebook.
Royal College of Surgeons, 0845 508 8515, until 22 Aug (not 16), 6.10pm, £7 (£5).

Review: Fiachra Sheridan – The Runners

Review of Fiachra Sheridan‘s debut novel The Runners from yesterday’s Sunday Business Post:

Dublin’s north inner city has never had it easy, but the 1980s were particularly deleterious.Unchecked urban decay, vertiginous unemployment figures and a deadly influx of cheap heroin made it a decade to forget for many of the capital’s poorest and most vulnerable.

But for Bobby Ryan and Jay McCann, the vivacious, impetuous 13-year-olds at the heart of Fiachra Sheridan’s debut novel, The Runners, the inner city in 1985 offers everything a boy could want – and more. Growing up in Ballybough, under the shadow of Croke Park, they fish in the Tolka river, swim at the pool on Sean McDermott Street and race each other past the Sunset House in Summerhill.

the runnersThis is primarily a novel about adolescent friendship. Written from the perspective of Bobby, it maintains a laudably naive tone as it follows the boys’ youthful japes, from robbing the local store to jumping the fence at a packed Dalymount to watch a Paolo Rossi-inspired Italy defeat Liam Brady’s Ireland.

While their friendship crosses class divisions – Jay comes from the flats while Bobby’s parents, despite surviving on welfare, own their home – social distinctions are never fully transcended. Bobby, we are told in typically simple prose, ‘‘was envious of Jay living in the flats. He had a real claim on being a Ballybough boy. Bobby pretended he was from the flats.”

The most important adult in the boys’ world is not a parent or a teacher, but Anto Burke, their Stardust fire scarred boxing trainer. A decidedly ambivalent character, Anto both instils discipline and determination in the headstrong youths and uses them to ferry drugs around the inner city, with predictably disastrous consequences for all.

Sheridan is a writer with an impressive family pedigree – his father is playwright and director Peter, uncle Jim is a serial Academy Award nominee – and The Runners is not without literary merit. The boys’ boxing and football-filled milieu is believably rendered, and the novel is studded with memorable scenes from their young lives, most poignantly when Bobby’s alcoholic father buys him a bargain bin England jersey instead of a Liverpool shirt for his birthday. (‘‘A fiver was all he was worth.”)

Sheridan employs a deliberately pared-back style but, at crucial points, particularly in the opening 50 pages, the story feels underwritten and slightly one-paced. The author seems to know the narrative he wants to tell so well that he neglects to put the hard graft into setting it up properly.

The demotic opening paragraph, with its description of ‘‘Dublin’s north inner city, one of the poorest parts of Dublin’’, reads more like the intro to a lazy news feature than the opening gambit of what is essentially a well realised, well crafted novel.

Sheridan’s narrative improves as Bobby and Jay’s childish innocence and their hopes and dreams are destroyed by the nefarious world of drugs and addiction that lives on their doorsteps. But the author’s determination to write in single-clause sentences and unembellished, flattened prose does leave some genuinely dramatic moments feeling strangely empty and stilted.

The engrossing, rather chilling denouement suggests that, with a little more verve, ambition and editorial work throughout, Sheridan might have had a real gem of a debut on his hands. Nevertheless, this intimate account of inner-city life is a respectable introduction for a writer with a bright future ahead of him.

Review: Ghosts and Lightening

Review of Trevor Bryne’s debut from The Sunday Business Post:

Ghosts and Lightning, the debut novel by Dublin-born writer Trevor Byrne, is set in a Clondalkin housing estate, to which Denny Cullen – an out of work 20-something with a passion for wrestling and Liverpool FC – reluctantly returns following the unexpected death of his mother.

The protagonist is more profligate than prodigal son; he left for Wales with dreams of university and a new life but, less than a year later, is broke, unhappy and back living in the family home, though without his mother’s stabilising influence.

The story follows Denny and his friends as they divide their time between drinking, taking drugs and signing on. Funny and entertaining, yet tinged with sadness and desperation, Ghosts and Lightning is full of colourful scenes. Convinced the house is haunt ed by her late mother’s ghost, his sister Paula harangues a sceptical Denny into organising a seance with the help of Pajo, a former heroin addict with a penchant for herbal medicine, eastern mysticism and the paranormal.

What Pajo believes to be a voice from the spirit world – ‘‘Did yeh hear that?” – turns out to be the low hum of Simon Cowell passing judgment on an X-Factor contestant from an upstairs television.

Surprisingly thoughtful and considerate, Denny is often held back by his comrades and a life that brings little happiness, but from which he seems incapable of escaping. When he buys a decrepit old car for ‘‘the bit o’ freedom’’, it is destroyed by local Travellers in revenge for the transgressions of Maggit, an absent father, petty crook and childhood friend.

Ghosts and Lightning also transposes a favourite trope of 1990s male literary fiction – drug-taking – to contemporary Dublin. From the pills he pops himself to the bag of stolen cocaine that provides the impetus for the rather unexpected denouement in Donegal, drugs are a quotidian feature of Denny’s world.

Given such subject matter and the novel’s vernacular style, comparisons with Irvine Welsh seem inevitable, but this is no Irish Trainspotting.

Byrne’s fragile, dysfunctional characters are more likely to elicit sympathy than repugnance, and his attentive, lyrical prose owes a greater debt to Alan Warner, James Kelman and Cormac McCarthy than to Welsh.

Ghosts-and-Lightning-by-T-002Written and set just before the recent economic crash, Ghosts and Lightning is a remarkably prescient reflection on the lives left behind during the boom.

‘‘I’m not unaware of Ireland’s wealth, I’m just not party to it,” Denny remarks early in the book after an attractive Swedish ‘chugger’, a charity collector, approaches him outside Trinity College.

The question of how to counter such alienation and disenfranchisement is a central dilemma that, in truth, is never fully resolved. The novel is suffused with an underlying nostalgia for a return to ‘‘an older Ireland’’, a phrase Denny uses throughout, but this is not developed much beyond the city-dweller’s nascent yearning for the countryside of his childhood memory.

Nevertheless, there is much to applaud in Byrne’s powerful debut. His writing is concise and unfussy, yet not without literary flourishes: on numerous occasions he appears to abandon the narrative completely only to return a few pages later via an insightful or comic digression; and his use of flashbacks to reveal the character of Denny’s mother is particularly effective.

There are echoes of Roddy Doyle and Sean O’Casey in his use of language, and it makes a refreshing change to discover a new Irish writer using Hiberno-English outside quotation marks.

Judging by this poignant, compelling and often deeply comic tale of life on the margins of Irish society, Byrne seems certain to enjoy greater longevity than the Celtic tiger which abandoned Denny Cullen and his friends so comprehensively.

Antony and the Johnsons, Waterfront Belfast

Review originally appeared in The Sunday Business Post:

‘The only time I’ve ever played here,” Antony Hegarty’s sonorous voice intoned from behind his grand piano, ‘‘a lady gave me a packet of magic Rolos and said they’d bring good fortune.”

Touted by Lou Reed since their early days, Antony and hi s band, the Johnsons, have never wanted for luck, but perhaps it was the ersatz confectionery that gave them that crucial final push – a couple of months after their 2005 gig in Belfast , they s cooped the Mercury Music Prize.

Fans of Hegarty’s stark, plaintive songs had to wait almost four years between the breakthrough record, I Am A Bird Now, and his third album, The Crying Light. Released earlier this year, it is a dark, moody opus often drenched in despondency. But when performed live, many of these same tracks exhibited an unexpectedly warm, even soulful character.

In his distinct, throaty singing voice – a curious hybrid of Boy George, Nina Simone and David Tibet – the cherubic Englishman delivered heartfelt songs of sadness, anomie and, as on I Fell In Love With A Dead Boy and For Today I Am A Boy, androgynity.

The Johnsons provided the perfect foil. Their guitar, drums, wind and string accompaniment – Rob Moose’s exquisite guitar tone was particularly impressive – complemented, but never drowned out, Hegarty’s magnificent falsetto vocals.

Mirroring the joyous sunshine outside, Hegarty quickly warmed to the generous crowd: bantering happily, introducing new songs with anecdotes, taking requests and – on The Crying Light – cutting the most animated figure behind a piano this side of Elton John, fingers clicking to the beat as his sizeable frame swayed in his makeshift brown robe.

An audience-assisted version of Dust and Water was followed by a majestic, uplifting Fistful of Love which, unlike other old favourites, was indulged, rather than truncated.

Two thoroughly deserved Standing ovations were book-ended by the fragile Cripple and the Starfish before an almost uplifting Hope There’s Someone brought the concert to a fitting close.

Soaringly beautiful, yet surprisingly grounded, Antony and the Johnsons clearly don’t need to rely on supernatural sweets any more.

Oh, What A Lovely War! Review Sunday Business Post 11/04/09

Joan Littlewood once said Oh, What A Lovely War! ‘is not aconventional play and will not come to life if treated as such’. From the Perriot clown who chastises the audience taking their seats to the pre-recorded sing-song by Bruiser Production’s patron Duke Special, this revival of Littlewood’s savage evisceration of the first world war seldom plays it straight.

First produced by the legendary Theatre Workshop in 1963, the play blends militant politics and entertainment as a Pierrot troupe perform sketches and songs while images and newspaper clippings about the number of dead flash up on a screen behind them. In this recasting of the great war the real heroes are not the callous, negligent officer class but the aptly titled cannon fodder.

This is physical theatre at its finest. The nine-strong troupe convincingly shift between intentionally jingoistic caricatures of the great powers – effeminate France, anti-Semitic Russia, officious Germany – and ribald trench songs about everything from poison gas and bombs to homesickness and fear of death: ‘I don’t want a bayonet in my belly/I don’t want my bollocks shot away.’

Humour is used throughout to both send up and underline the absurdity of war. In an early scene a reticent gang of Pierrots in English army caps practice rifle manoeuvres with pink parasols and sticks. Admonishing their squeamishness, a stereotypically foul-mouthed, moustachioed drill sergeant growls at them: ‘You look at Jerry, imagine he’s doing something to your mother.’

Commandingly directed by Lisa May, the play evokes strong emotional responses without drifting into sentimentality. The potent mix of facts and photographs attests the scale of the horror, while dramatic moments like the exchange of gifts and songs across no man’s land at Christmas 1914 provide haunting, poignant reminders of the gulf between combatants and cause.

The performances are universally excellent. Although it seems somewhat churlish to single anyone out the acting and singing of Patrick J O’Reilly, Faolán Morgan and Niamh McGowan deserve special praise.

By turns bawdry and touching, the songs retain a vibrancy that belies their age, and live instruments, including accordion, flute and drums, believably recreate the sounds of war.

In keeping with Bruiser’s maxim of ‘minimum set for maximum effect’, David Craig’s spartan set is wholly fit for purpose. All furniture needs are served by four movable slabs, and Sean Paul O’Rawe’s unfussy lighting – simple chains of naked coloured bulbs – complements the drama’s shifting tone.

From Afghanistan to Iraq, the spectre of war still hangs over all. While it would be fascinating to see Oh, What A Lovely War! updated for such media saturated conflicts, this excellent production is a fitting tribute to those who went to their graves in the first world war, and a damning indictment of those who sent them there.