Alone It Stands (Munster 12 - All Blacks Nil)

John Breen

Duchess

(2002)

Review by Philip Fisher

This is a play that will appeal to all sports lovers and it has been successfully touring around the world for the last couple of years. The original run in mainland Britain was at the Traverse Theatre during the Edinburgh Festival of 2000. At the Duchess, it still seems to be selling out on a regular basis and this funny comedy justifies all of the accolades that it has received. The audience was largely made up of rugby fans, particularly Irish ones. For reasons that will become apparent, New Zealanders were few and far between!

This is the story of a legendary day in 1978 when the local amateurs of Munster managed to meet the all-conquering All Blacks who were undefeated on the rest of that tour. Six performers including a woman come on to the stage in deathly silence and immediately start off by doing a haka. This seems slightly strange as when the play was originally performed, they entered to the tune of David Bowie's Heroes, a far more appropriate welcome. The first half of the play is performed in All Black kit.

In the style of Marie Jones' box-office blockbuster, Stones in his Pockets, they then go on to relate numerous tales resting around the story of this momentous day. Whether this play has quite the legs to be as successful as Stones seems unlikely but, while it is not very demanding fare, it is great fun and really gets the audience buzzing.

The actors apparently play somewhere in the region of 62 characters (although it feels like more) together with one dog and six earthworms. They are good as both the supporters and the players. In the latter guise, they convince as they rush about the stage and tackle and throw each other to the ground. They also use an assortment of accents particularly when trying to catch the nasal twang of the All Blacks. At least they get the Irish ones right.

As well as the rugby, Breen also addresses some more serious issues. These include class, politics and the preponderance of sheep in New Zealand.

The six versatile actors relive heroic moments such as the brave, lightweight Seamus Dennison's tackle of Stu Wilson that turned the game. The slow recovery of the two punch-drunk players is beautifully portrayed.

They also manage to include a birth complete with a lengthy labour and a death. The former is very cleverly done as a rugby scrum suddenly becomes the delivery room and as quickly reverts. The ensemble cast also provides some lovely Chariots of Fire style slow motion scenes.

To show their versatility, the company manages to act not only as all of the characters and animals but also as new born twins, the rugby ball and a corpse. The tragedy of the loss of the Irish captain, Donal Caniffe's father during the course of the match almost turns the tears of laughter to real ones.

In this play, Breen shows his real love for Munster and for rugby and also a relative evenhandedness, as the first half All Black Kit gives way to the red and white of Munster after the interval. He really is a true Irishman and biased as hell! At the end though, it is almost as if the audience had attended the match. They feel the bitter disappointment of a New Zealand team bred to win every game and the true pleasure of not only the Munster players but every single one of their fans.

Breen's writing is almost always very funny and occasionally soars above the sentimental to poetic heights as he allows himself free rein to toast the successes of his beloved team. As he says, rugby is a religion in a Limerick.

This is an amusing if unpretentious play well worth catching if you are in London or if it tours near you (even if you do not like rugby).