THEATRE / Lost in Billy Roche's Wexford: Paul Taylor is amused, moved and confused by Billy Roche's The Cavalcaders

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The Independent Culture
In 100 years from now will people talk of Billy Roche's Wexford in the way we now refer to Joyce's Dublin and Hardy's Wessex? There are those who think so, and when Robin Lefevre's production of The Cavalcaders, Roche's latest slice of small time life there, opened at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin last year, it was hailed as the author's finest work to date. Watching the show now, though, at London's Royal Court, you may find yourself moved not just to laughter and tears, but to lodging a pretty hefty caveat.

Roche's ear, his loving familiarity with the cadences and quirks of Wexford's speech, is as sharp as ever. No complaints either about a quality of observation that can describe a man's face as looking 'like a well flapped arse'. Whether capturing the easy banter of old friends or conveying the troubled voice of raw conscience, the dialogue strikes you as seamlessly authentic. The problems lie in the structure, for there is surely something amiss with the play that - flowing past in a rich, puzzling stream of half-

apprehended hints and subtleties - has you making an early and urgent resolve to curl up with a copy of the text.

It starts with its end, as middle- aged Terry (Tony Doyle) stands like some bleak exile in his own cluttered, grimy, old-fashioned cobblers shop and listens to the modernising plans of his former assistant who is taking over. The play then shuttles between this conclusion and episodes from the past depicted as Terry's uneasy, remorseful memories. Gradually, elusively, unsystematically, a picture emerges as to why this figure, who is still attractive to women and was once the prime force in the popular barbers shop quartet of the title, has shrunk to a stricken shadow of himself.

It's a mark of the play's tantalising quality that, though his wife's early defection with his best friend and best man has continued to haunt Terry and to distort his life, Roche doesn't vouchsafe us any flashback directly related to the incident or a glimpse of wife or friend. Instead, this crucial event is approached through the obliquities of haphazard conversational reminiscence and through the dramatisation of its effects.

It is also characteristic of the way Roche likes to elide tragedy and comedy that the story of Terry's betrayal has its less-than-reverent funny side. The Cavalcaders, we hear, provided the music at his nuptial mass and, at the offatory, Terry couldn't resist joining them in the the choir loft. He thus became not just the man who sung at his own wedding, but in leaving his furious wife at the altar with the best man, a comically early accomplice in his own cuckolding.

The most successful scenes, wonderfully played by Doyle and Aisling O'Sullivan as a young, frankly adoring shopgirl, painfully reveal Terry as a man who is now frightened off by the word 'love' and who can only cope with hole-in- the-corner affairs. Again, the pain is flecked with comedy. One minute, exasperated beyond endurance by her appeals for openness and commitment, Terry is giving the girl a high-minded lecture on why she should leave him, the next he is shamefacedly trying to win her back by telling her she shouldn't listen to old folk like him.

The play becomes hard to follow because, in a sense, it offers too many reasons (too glancingly) for Terry's sickness of soul. His bastardy; his betrayal of his beloved uncle through sex with his aunt (an incident several times alluded to, but never definitively cleared up); the implication that, in memory, he still hero-worships the man who betrayed him: we are allowed to infer that these and other factors have played their part in his malaise, while still being left with a nagging doubt that we have not got to the bottom of him. Since the Cavalcaders, whose rehearsals amiably punctuate the proceedings and whose music gives it its nostalgic note, are destroyed for reasons quite independent of Terry (illness, marital treachery), the extent of the final bleakness may strike you as a little willed. You certainly feel that whoever erected the signposts on this stretch of memory lane should try a career in maze-making.

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(Photograph omitted)