THEATRE Tarry Flynn / A Picture of Paradise The Abbey / The Peacock, Dublin

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Patrick Kavanagh's epic poem The Great Hunger was given a fine, lust-addled adaptation by Tom McIntyre a few years back - so there's a tradition to the madness of writer / director Conall Morrison's well-worked, surprise-laden adaptation of Kavanagh's shambolic novel Tarry Flynn. It's heightened autobiography, really: the mother-coddled young farmer who reads Shaw and Flaubert, while grappling with sexual awakening among a small-minded peasantry.

It's a busy, breathlessly up-beat show, with plenty of knowing, slapdash humour, and a cast big enough to staff a small hospital. From this welter of limbs, Morrison has fashioned a rural-absurdist Theatre of the Image (channelling the exuberance of choreographer David Bolger), with actors readily playing hens, horses, or doe-eyed calves, or forming great, heroic, animated friezes: mass ballets of graips, shovels, slashhooks, scythes etc.

Yet, embedded in all these delirious effects, is another warm stage-Ireland tale of peasant hearths. The central character, Tarry (an engaging, fag- lipped James Kennedy), may be hen-pecked by his widowed, gimlet-eyed mother (Pauline Flanagan), but the special relationship is hilariously evident in the daily intimacy of paring her corns; while the three disgruntled, unwed sisters glower in the background. Then there's shy loveliness of the back-field gawk (the sad-beaming sympathy of Lynn Cahill), whom Tarry gets into "trouble" and then drops like a stone - a tragic thread that melts away quickly into the feel-good mirth.

Yet there's great intelligence and human engagement to this adaptation; the irreverent humour softening you up to stabs of emotion, or visionary thickets of soliloquy that congeal around special lighting and snatches of Mahler. Shamelessly using every trick in the book, Morrison re-invents the throwback theatrical form; making the most of the anarchic richness of the quaggy Monaghan dialect, for a long evening of pure fun.

The same could hardly be said of the harrowing scenario of social despair in the Peacock theatre downstairs. After the startling debut of playwright Jimmy Murphy's Brothers of the Brush, this second play, A Picture of Paradise, deals with the issue of homelessness. The play is a relentless 90-minute tragedy about an indigent family converging on their scattered heap of belongings, which a thug from the local resident's committee has just flung from their squatted flat in a tower block.

Somewhere in here, a very genuine play is trying to scratch its way out, almost as desperately as its characters wine-dream their way beyond their predicament. It's a curious collision of hurting autobiography and agitprop societal anger. Charting the family's slippage on to the streets through alcoholism and gambling, it weirdly flails at marrying a rare-old-times vision of Dublin misery with a less digested critique of the mangy underbelly of the "Celtic Tiger" of Irish economic growth.

This is echoed in the chasm between the well-known acting styles of Barbara Brennan (wife), Paul Bennett (husband) and Johnnie Murphy (opportunist tramp) against the more contemporary, more weakly written, characters from the heroin-crucified present. And, despite the best efforts of director and dramaturg David Byrne, the whole concept seems flawed - veering between pitch- black comedy and pathos, teetering towards sentimentality. You wonder about the series of accidents that brought about this concerted attempt to make an art out of something that is almost too outrageous to contemplate.