THEATRE / Losing their way down memory lane

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The Independent Culture
'WHAT am I goin' to write about? Take a look out of the window any day of the week and you'll find somethin' to write about - a whole universe of stuff out there]' Figuratively speaking, that bit of advice could apply to any of Billy Roche's plays, which uncover a wide span of human experience without stirring outside Wexford.

Coming from the hero of Roche's The Cavalcaders, there is nothing figurative about that speech, as Terry spends a good part of each working day with his nose squashed against the grimy window of his cobbler's shop watching the local talent go by. He is a middle-aged man nursing the wounds of an unhappy early marriage. Still attractive to women, he runs a barber- shop quartet (the Cavalcaders) with his assistants, and keeps open house for the ladies of the area, who get their feet stroked for free while their shoes are being patched up. He has a steady attachment to Breda (Marie Mullen), a complaisant hairdresser who knows about his past. Then young Nuala, an open-hearted shopgirl, falls for him, and Terry cannot resist, whereupon things take a nasty turn, leaving him with no shop and no more ladies.

It is only by degrees that this story takes shape (even after reading the text there are some details I am unsure about), as it is presented through past episodes in Terry's remorseful memory. There he stands in the darkened shop in the pugnacious, black-Irish person of Tony Doyle: a motionless exile, as his former assistant Rory (Barry Barnes), rambles on about the family and the shop which is now his. Then memory lights up Frank Conway's cheerfully cluttered set with convivial chatter as the neighbours wander in, the boys rehearse their routines round the piano, and the Nuala affair undergoes a fatal reprise, winding up with the memory of a mischievous first meeting, prompted by Terry finding an old newspaper report of her suicide.

If dialogue were everything, the acclaim that greeted Robin Lefevre's production at the Dublin Abbey Theatre would be well deserved. Roche is writing about people he knows, and from their lightest gossip to their outbursts of unstudied passion, every word rings true. But structurally the play strikes me as a disaster. The effect of starting with the terminally defeated hero is to contaminate everything that follows with the same sense of futility. If this were coupled with otherwise unavailable insights, that would be a price worth paying. But blow after random blow falls without any compensatory illumination. For reasons unconnected with Terry, the Cavalcaders fall apart: adultery and death strike out of the blue. You are also left wondering whether the Cavalcaders - even evoked in wistful memory - are supposed to be any good. With their dreadful comic patter and amateurish accompaniment, it is hard to imagine where they get their bookings. Mr Roche, who is a musician, and appears here as the most melodically expressive of the group, must know that you could walk into any Dublin music pub and hear something better.

My only explanation for this and other unanswered questions is that Roche, for once, has fallen prey to the Irish appetite for guilt and disaster. The scenes between Terry and Nuala (a lovely performance by Aisling O'Sullivan) are truthfully written, and the production develops their relationship to an intensity of distress that is almost unbearable to watch. But what is all the misery for? In a memory play you expect to get all the relevant memories; but Terry's do not reach back to the source of his pain. His wife never appears. You are invited to look at this emotionally stunted cock of the walk as a wounded victim; but maybe it was he who did the wounding.

As I have not been in the front rank of those saluting Peter Hall's takeover of the West End, I am glad to raise a cheer for his latest show. This production of Feydeau's An Absolute Turkey (alias Le Dindon) is a blue-blooded successor of the 1950s Comedie-Francaise production which initiated post- war English audiences into the art of farce. Since then there has been much theorising on the topic, without any perceptible increase in our stock of farce directors. Hall until now has steered clear of post-classical comedy: the Globe show leaves you wondering why. He clearly has farce in his blood.

The piece involves four couples and two sexual free- lances who spend the first act tuning up for a six-part hotel bedroom fugue which then subsides from a climax of grinding frustration to an exhausted coda. Any fault in the show's pacing, and the audience would be likely to share that exhaustion. The first point to make about this performance is that the impact of Act 2, with its elegantly split-second confusions and concluding punch-up, is as nothing compared to the subsequent sight of the sexually glutted Griff Rhys Jones being visited by the two ladies of his choice and hardly able to prop his eyes open.

The energy level throughout is terrific; as it needs to be for a cast of rampaging egoists, each seeking to dominate the stage before being pushed aside by the next. Feydeau instantly drops any situation as soon as its comic potential is achieved. The first act is full of these abrupt swerves, and the production is on to each of them in a flash, with lust, friendship, revenge, jealousy, following each other at breakneck speed, but invariably signalled so incisively as to put the audience one step ahead of the characters.

The casting, from Felicity Kendal's vengeful Lucienne down to Richard Henders as a rampant pageboy and Susie Brann as a hotel maid who swings impertinent guests over her head, suggests a team of acrobats. One moment of sentimentality, one touch of embarrassment, and the chain would snap. It never does, and nothing interrupts the delicious long-range unwinding of comic justice, from Jones's grinning Schadenfreude to his humiliated impotence ('I swear this is the first time'), or Nicholas le Prevost's pursuit of Lucienne brandishing his phallic walking-stick, to his delirious recognition that he has merely been duped into punishing her husband. Aptly confined in Gerald Scarfe's nightmare Art Nouveau settings, the text marks a spirited translation debut for Hall and Nicki Frei. 'I'm a cuckoo.' 'Cuckwhat?' runs one previous attempt to render an exchange with a Germanic cuckold. Compare the Hall version: 'I'm a cuckoo.' 'How Swiss.'

Adapted from Odon von Horvath, Traugott Krischke's Tales of Fraulein Pollinger follows its dressmaker heroine's career from unemployed dependence into prostitution in the Munich of the 1920s. In the manner of Schnitzler's Reigen, the luckless Agnes falls in with five increasingly unscrupulous males, ending up with the oafish waiter of the first scene. Although you can see it all coming, the cumulative effect has the sardonic force of a Bildungsroman in reverse. Annie Fitzmaurice is an Otto Dix portrait come to life; and the men in Bill Sterland's production are creepily well cast.

'The Cavalcaders', Royal Court, 071-730 1745. 'An Absolute Turkey', Globe, 071-494 5067. 'Tales of Fraulein Pollinger', Etcetera, 071-482 4857.

(Photograph omitted)

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