Making the right choices isn't easy

Galway Arts Festival various venues, Galway
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The Independent Culture
The Galway Arts Festival is celebrating its 18th year, and its "house" players, an ambitious and genuinely innovative troupe called Macnas, specialising in highly visual, impossibly choreographed interpretations of Irish myths, are nearing their teens themselves, and developing an international reputation. The Macnas parade on the first Sunday of the festival has traditionally been a highlight of an event that has itself become the highlight of the Irish arts calendar. True to form, the sun came out, the streets were chock-a-block and Galway's civic pride and gently rarefied ambience - embracing wholesome values and cosmopolitan bohemian cool in a curious socio-cultural soup - were readily apparent.

So, too, was the abject futility of viewing proceedings from the rearguard of a crowded pavement, but it was a good time to grab a seat in a coffee shop. Making the right choices in a programme that emphasises quirkiness as a benchmark of quality, and popular appeal as a benchmark of policy, isn't easy. Flamenco dancer Maria Pages didn't sound that awesome on paper, but next day word of mouth unanimously suggested otherwise. Singer/ songwriter Robyn Hitchcock looked quirky on paper, but proved a bore on stage - faintly amusing for 10 minutes, irritating thereafter. Never trust an act with the word "legendary" on the posters; it's usually a weak apology for the long-term absence of large audiences.

Traditional concerts with supergroups Altan and the venerable De Dannan were a more fulfilling experience, as indeed was American raconteur Spalding Gray. Gray - a Galway regular - broke a filming schedule to make it and dazzled a packed banqueting hall of the Great Southern Hotel (the festival is noted for its lack of permanent appropriate venues) with a two-hour feast of Gray's Anatomy, a resurrected monologue of its hero's tribulations with turning 50 and facing the two-pronged assault of wedlock and hypochondria. Hilarious and brilliantly observational as he treks the world in search of increasingly ludicrous quacks and therapists, Gray mixes the best aspects of Woody Allen's knowing neurosis with the gentle contradictions of Frasier.

Where Gray was well-served by his ad hoc surroundings, England's vaudeville revivalists The Right Size Theatre Company drew the short straw with a venue so cavernous (a gymnasium) that their marvellously imaginative Beckett- meets-music-hall production Stop Calling Me Vernon was left fighting with the space. Described by no less than Miles Kington, in a cut-out-and-keep designer print-bite as "the funniest and cleverest thing I saw at Edinburgh in 1994", one could see what he meant. But try laughing out loud in a gymnasium and feel the rumbling disapproval of the echo.

Druid Theatre Company's production of Tom Murphy's Blue Macushla is a cross-generic farce that brings the essence of James Bond movies - androgynous villains with pet fish, a pretty girl with a silly name (Roscommon), thugs with steel stomachs - to the world of Dublin night clubs and Irish nationalism. The set and lighting design, by Paul MacCauley and Rick Fisher respectively, were superb, and there were sturdy performances all round, but the fact that much of the audience only twigged the thing was a comedy in the final scene showed up teething troubles in possibly the writing and certainly in John Crowley's direction. The cleverest, but not the funniest, thing I saw at Galway 1995.