This is shamelessly cheesy and it knows it - and that's the joke. Dion Boucicault's Irish romp - in Victorian dress - features a dashing patriotic gent trying to escape arrest (presumably for opposing British rule), his scallywaggish servant (aka The Shaughraun), several resourceful pretty lasses, a moustachioed, land-grabbing villain and a romantically smitten English redcoat. Presented by Dublin's Abbey Theatre, very much in a crowd-pleasing holiday humour, this is really a summer panto or an 1870s melodrama with its tongue so far in its cheek that it feels post-modern.
Boucicault was the Emerald Isle's most outrageously successful showman in his day. When he wasn't eloping with young actresses, he was nicking other people's plots and churning out spectaculars which he himself called guano but which became international smash hits. So, it's surely with a grin and a wink that the Abbey has entrusted his celebrated comedy-melodrama to John McColgan, director of the easily pooh-poohed yet phenomenally popular show, Riverdance.
I ended up coming full circle, critically speaking, regarding this production. The heart sinks initially, as the company launches straight into a Riverdance replay, jigging around in a ready-mixed festive mood, accompanied by a gratuitous magician on a supremely tacky set. A sub-Disney castle is silhouetted against a saccharine blue sky with tinkling stars, all in a giant, gilded picture frame. A thatched hut and high rocky outcrops also trundle into view, on revolves, fabricated from wobbly polystyrene.
But then the ensemble's deliberately hammy performances prove irresistibly droll, with moments of great vaudevillian timing. Stephen Brennan, as the baddie landlord, stalks around in a stovepipe hat, encouraging boos and hisses. His shifty henchman, David Pearse's Duff, is like Quasimodo crossed with an over-wound automaton, lurching around on stiff little limbs, with his whole arm whirling before he scratches his nose.
Fiona O'Shaughnessy's super-husky Claire coyly pretends to faint on a stroll with her admirer, Rory Keenan's Captain Molineux, hurling herself suggestively to the ground and panting as he, in a cod moral dilemma, hurtles to left and right, crying "I don't know how to act" - casting a rueful glance at the audience who, of course, hoot in agreement.
The most sophisticated joke of the evening is that Boucicault's Irish characters combine charm and cheek in their dealings with the English, and that, in turn, is the very game McColgan's troupe are playing with us. At its most interesting, this is also a witty portrait of a people surviving under occupation. In fact, this piece might be seen as a light-hearted precursor to The Home Place, Brian Friel's near-tragedy about Victorian Anglo-Irish relations, which has just transferred to the West End from Dublin's Gate Theatre.
Ultimately though, McColgan isn't a great director. He lets his actors' gags wear thin instead of developing them, and Don Wycherley, playing The Shaughraun, has more driving charisma than comic fine-tuning. Nothing is made of the few sharp flashes of Fenian extremism when, for instance, Claire snaps that violence is the quickest solution. What's more, some of the cast become cloying, playing cutesy Oirish clichés to the hilt, without any visible irony.
Fun for a while.
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