Theatre: The right sort of melodrama

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
"THERE'S SOMETHING going on that's worth peeping into," remarks wicked Mr Corrigan. You can say that again, and it's not just the plot. Connall Morrison's big-hearted Abbey Theatre production of Dion Boucicault's 1860 comedy simply glows.

Lord David Cecil once summarised Jane Austen's view of marriage as "It was wrong to marry for money, but silly to marry without it". That's the dilemma at the centre of this riotously sentimental play, which is also intricately bound up with Irish notions of class and "the servant problem". Up to no good at the drop of a handkerchief, theatrical valets and chambermaids cause no end of trouble. I mean, if that wretched maid Brangaene hadn't switched the poison draught for a love potion we could all have gone home after the first act of Tristan and Isolde. Even cinema is not immune. Look at Young Frankenstein. Thanks to Marty Feldman's limping Igor stealing the wrong brain, poor Gene Wilder's Dr Frankenstein ends up creating a monster.

Here, the equally hump-backed Danny, absurdly devoted to Hardress Cregan who accidentally crippled him, offers to do away with the impediment to Hardress's necessary marriage to a wealthy heiress, the Colleen Ruadh. We're talking, gasp, murder. As in all good melodramas, Hardress is caught between true love and the distressed state of his widowed mother, who is struggling to fight off the financial and would-be conjugal demands of the landlord, Mr Corrigan. Will Hardress forsake the naive charms of the inconveniently lowly Colleen Bawn for the sake of hard cash? Or will his desperate mother take matters into her own hands?

The key to the production's boisterous success is its true understanding of melodrama. Usually the cue for overcooked ham, here it becomes a hugely enjoyable, properly stylised mode of acting, the characterisations writ large with a physical finesse and gusto that sweep you up with their generosity of spirit. It's impossible to tell where Morrison's direction ends and David Bolger's richly detailed movement and choreography begins, but between them they encourage a lustrous humanity from their actors.

Even more importantly, virtually all the action is underscored by an on-stage five-piece band. There are joyously infectious company songs, but this is not a musical as such. Conor Linehan's wonderfully affecting score switches between 19th-century-style chamber music for interior scenes in elegant drawing-rooms, and richly harmonised, traditional-style Irish folk music for the exteriors and scenes among the rural peasantry. Character- specific themes add to the vibrant texture, heightening and enriching the wildly contrasting moods; the cumulative effect creates an altogether unexpected lump in your throat.

Boucicault's story, full of sudden entrances, eavesdropping and coincidences, is famed for its pleasurable preposterousness, and Francis O'Connor's cunning designs add to the fun, particularly when bathed in the warmth of Ben Ormerod's lighting. If the actors weren't up to the challenge, it might all come across as an over-egged pudding. Happily, the company spirit is so strong as to be positively infectious.

To 27 March (0171-452 3000)