A tableau vivant of the Irish past

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The Independent Culture
THE BEST way of loving a country like this, declares the uncle towards the end of Tarry Flynn, is from a range of at least 300 miles. Adapted from Patrick Kavanagh's autobiographical novel, Conall Morrison's Abbey Theatre production conjures up just the right humourous blend of affection and exasperation in the small-minded, priest-ridden, virgin- stuffed world of County Cavan in the mid-Thirties. The eponymous young farmer-poet loves the district yet longs to escape from it. If it is as beautiful as he imagines, argues the uncle, he can take it with him in his mind and write about it. Paying your deepest duties to home may, for a writer, involve achieving a safe distance away from it.

It is a familiar story but one that is presented with zest by a large, leaping, tumbling, animal-impersonating cast. No fewer than 29 of them animate a witty mindscape design by Francis O'Connor where bits of bikes and farm implements poke absurdly through the lofty walls and doors fly open to reveal camp tableaux vivants of oppressive Catholic saints, and where the set can cheekily suck back into itself a narrow bachelor bed to prevent the owner getting his hands on the fantasy female sprawled upon it.

At the start, with the synchronised scything movements of the farm labourers and their choreographed twirlings and stampings, you are strongly reminded of the peasants in Martin Guerre. (In fact, the creative team of Morrison and his movement director, David Bolger, is the one that has been picked to stage yet another revision of the troubled Schonberg-Boublil musical, scheduled to open at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in November.) Elsewhere, it's Complicite who are recalled, as you watch actors crouch and twist their bodies into the shape of farmyard creatures - a newborn calf teetering around on ballet pointes; a horse seemingly snorting in sarcastic response to Tarry's clumsy overtures to girls; and a mutt hurtling, fangs bared, towards the leg of anyone resembling a priest.

Interfering anti-intellectual clerics, though, are only one of the problems facing James Kennedy's attractively awkward and aspiring Tarry. Among the others are his overbearing mother, splendidly portrayed by Pauline Flannagan; his aggressively unmarriageable sisters; a dangerous feud; a bad land purchase; and a girl blaming him for her condition.

Since the play shows him pushed to a point where escape seems a better solution than simply trying to rise above it all, it never develops much dramatic drive. But, bathed in the purply blues and greens of Nick McCall's lovely lighting, and with a design dominated by an undulating downward sweep of turf, it is staged in a way that helps one to understand Tarry's belief, baffling to his pious mother (whose corns he happens to be paring at the time of stating it) that "the holy spirit is in the fields".

If the production is ingratiating at times, at least the piece is free of the cynicism and Post-modern knowingness in the plays, also set in the Irish past, of Martin McDonagh.