Love me, love my nation; THEATRE

The Colleen Bawn Brighton Festival
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You can get the idea of The Colleen Bawn just by glancing at the cast list. The first character on it is Myles-na-Coppaleen, the pen-name used by Brian O'Nolan when he wasn't writing as Flan O'Brien. O'Nolan satirised everything represented by Myles, the archetypal lovable scamp - a jig in his step, a song in his heart, a jest on his lips, a pain in the bum. Yet, as the Royal Exchange Mobile Theatre production shows, the 1860 melodrama still exerts considerable charm, enhanced by its canny commercialism.

Dion Boucicault was a great crowd-pleaser, writing at once for the Irish working class and its masters. Colleen's two and a half amorous couples include the fair maid of the title, Eily O'Connor ("I'm only a poor, simple girl"), and three members of the Anglo-Irish gentry. The odd man out is Myles, who loves Eily, but feels it his duty to cede her to someone better-born. Another Irishman who knows his place is the boatman who volunteers to kill Eily when she causes his master trouble and, when the plan is rejected with horror, carries it out anyway and takes all the blame. For one part of the audience, this play is a wallow in nostalgia for the great days of servitude.

If the Irish have a lock on humility, they also hold a monopoly on charm. The Anglo-Irish characters are admirable in proportion to the degree of green in their blood. Anne Chute, the spirited and dignified heiress (beautifully played by Ingrin Craigie), comes out with a bit of brogue in a heated moment: "My Irish heart will burst through manners and graces and 20 stay laces!" Small wonder that Frank Laverty's affable, appealing Myles tells her that the locals are so fond of her they call her by an Irish name: "Sure, there isn't a boy in County Kerry who wouldn't give the two thumbs of his hands to do a service to the Colleen Ruadh." The Anglophile Hardress Cregan, who loves Eily but proposes to the wealthy Anne, is a weakling, a snob and a momma's boy. The exception to this scheme is the one completely despicable character, a Mr Corrigan. He is, however, a lawyer and a landlord, and has committed the crime of rising above his station. Anne calls him "a potato on a silver plate".

For all its realism about vulnerable peasants and mercenary marriages, the play is driven by a longing to escape hard truths about character and motive. Not only is the ending a joyful one (except to those of us put off by Eily's romantic masochism), but all the unhappiness arises from innocent mistakes and good intentions. As the ceilidh band that accompanies the action reminds us, what we're hearing is one long, seductive Irish song.

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