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reviewsTheatre The Only True History of Lizzie Finn The Abbey Theatre, Dublin

'The simplicity and innocent beauty of the language gives it depth and an elegiac quality'
From the pen of Sebastian Barry, whose 1988 debut Boss Grady's Boys won him the first BBC/ Stewart Parker Award for new Irish drama, the title alone of this new work is as revealing in its pomp and futility as that of his other currently active production, The Steward of Christendom. Barry continues to explore a fascination not so much with the minutiae of written history on a grand scale, but with the life-changing perambulations of people utterly inconsequential as individuals beyond their lifetime.

Opening in set designer Joe Vanek's magnificently achieved recreation of a music hall in Weston-super-Mare in the 1890s, Lizzie Finn is a celebrated dancer, a self-made Kerry woman of lowly origins. Meeting him first on the seafront and subsequently assaulted by the good intentions of his leg-covering overcoat on the music hall stage, Lizzie, a woman of repressed national identity and immense strength of character, allows herself to be charmed by the awkward pleasantries of Robert Gibson, a soldier-come- lately from the war in South Africa. Romance flourishes and Gibson, himself from landed stock in Kerry, takes her away from all that and back to his crumbling family estate. Lizzie's money props up the debt-ridden domain, but her background and Robert's damnation of the ethics of war are ultimately too much for the social fabric of the area's elite to bear.

Gibson's mother, Lady Gibson, is a complex but loveable eccentric, last of an old order and doomed to the upkeep of appearances. Played with exceptional characterisation by Joan O'Hara, she is chastised by the local aristocracy, the Castlemaines, and banned from church by the rector. When her body is washed up from the sea, this "trio of lunatics" alone are invited to the wake. Robert realises he has led Lizzie "astray to this useless place", and, freeing themselves from the shackles of a fading society, they talk finally of selling up and walking into the sunset (Cork, to be precise), where a new music hall has just opened and, married to Robert, Lizzie could charge "extraordinary fees".

It is a tale with warmth, humour and a happy ending. While the plot and the message are essentially straightforward, the simplicity and innocent, honest beauty of the language Barry uses gives it depth and, in a strange sense, given the comedic nature of the work, an elegiac quality. The atmosphere of the music hall and the mansions are given life by a series of brilliantly tangential Shakespearean comedy scenes with a litany of minor characters. Birdy Sweeney, in multiple roles of teasingly Kind Hearts and Coronets resonance, and the frenetic, dizzy young maidservant Theresa, played with infectious energy by Fionnuala Murphy, were both outstanding. Choreographed scenes involving a knowingly preposterous Buffalo Bill & His Wild West Show and a collection of music hall archetypes were largely successful, while Shaun Davey's score, based on a single theme, evoked brilliantly, by turns, the vaudeville swagger and cold, windswept Kerry pathos demanded of it. Ironically, Alison Deegan, as Lizzie, was the weak link, miscast and simply unconvincing as the girlish fighter made good and too often dragging the understatement of her lines up a one-dimensional alley. Otherwise, a fine production and a first-rate piece of writing.

n Abbey Theatre, Dublin (003531 8787222) 8pm nightly (except Sunday, matinee Saturday) to 4 Nov