The Country Boy
Big Telly Theatre Company
Baby Grand, Grand Opera House Belfast & touring
The newly opened annex to Belfast's Grand Opera House & Cirque, though it adds spacious and much-needed revenue-enhancing bars, bistros, brasseries and booking facilities to the Grand Old Lady of the city's Great Victoria Street has come under an assault from 'Disgusted of Helen's Bay'.
For the contemporary design does not offer a pastiche of Frank Matcham's original: anything but. No complaints, however have arisen over the annex's additional 'Black Box' theatre space, marketed as a sop, perhaps, to the traditionalists, as The Baby Grand.
Recently Dublin's Opera Theatre Company declared the capacity too small for their delicious Hansel and Gretel. But now Big Telly has shown how to pack 'em in for their touring version of John Murphy's evergreen The Country Boy.
At first this workhorse of a drama, much beloved by Irish-American semi-professional thespians, seems a curious choice for this company which is still based twnety years on from its founding in the convent school and Italian ice-cream parlour cold water resort of Portstewart. The name comes from a child's overheard reaction to a first visit to live theatre. For Big T (patrons John Godber, Frank McGuinness, James Nesbitt and Fiona Shaw) have built their reputation by mixing child-friendly theatre with an eclectic raft of productions crewed by Dario Fo, Eugene Ionesco and John Godber which they have docked in Ireland's market towns
However, The Country Boy is never out of print and, at the end of their first two decades, the company's stalwart founders, Zoë Seaton and Jill Holmes have decided to throw a contemporary light on classic Irish drama with Murphy following Synge and Wilde.
So, this is familiar matter even down to the setting of green mountainy backdrop, turf-fired range, battered enamel jugs and ever-open whiskey bottle on the sideboard with Johnny Cash playing off stage. Here too are the rosy cheeked twinkly-eyed old mother Mary Kate (Helena Bereen in a routine performance), crotchety skinflint father (the ever magnetic John Hewitt), their stubborn put-upon son Curly (Brian McMahon making a good fist of it on stepping in at short notice for an indisposed Ruairi Tohill) and Curly's sweet sweetheart Eileen (sweet Grainne Gilmartin).
But it isn't Curly who is the Country Boy of the title. That burden falls on the square shoulders and increasing paunch of eldest son Eddie (played with some force by James Doran), home from Amerikay with his brash wife Julia (Maria Tecce) to boast of his obviously spurious wealth and, in the end, to dissuade young Curly from repeating his mistakes.
Whilst Mary Kate is in a comic tizzy over how to entertain the Yanks, Tom hides his love for his sons with well-timed and diverting gruffness. But not-so-fast Eddie stands revealed as a man whose fifteen years in the land of opportunity have landed him with nothing. Well nothing more than labouring jobs, a hollow marriage, a slum apartment, alcoholism and an unrequited love both for the country boy he once was and for Kate O'Hara, the love he left behind. Off-stage she's married now and dying in childbirth in the farm up the road.
Murphy's play has much to say about man's inarticulacy to man across the generations and about what Marx termed the idiocy of rural life, the inevitability of emigration and the inherited slavery of small unit farming. But Irish - and Irish American audiences have heard this all before in a coornucopia of ballads, novels, plays, and particularly in that most Irish of genres, the short story.
So though Doran's vulnerable Eddie convinced, and McMahon fields his best with a script he's still reading from on stage, Seaton's fast paced production never entirely made its mind up as to whether we were watching a warm Oirish farce, a sentimental familiar tragedy or a comment on the human condition. The part of Eddie's wife Julia can make this decision for us. But Maria Tecce deliverers a performance so one-dimensional that it adds nothing to any of these interpretations.
"The Country Boy" runs at the Baby Grand Belfast 26th & 27th February, then Burnavon Art Cookstown 28th February; Pavillion Dun Laoghaire 1st - 3rd March; Civic Theatre Tallagh 5th - 10th March
Reviewer: Ian Hill