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Dance Hall Days

Ros Scanlon
Irish Repertory Theatre UK
Riverside Studios
(2006)

While Elvis was shaking his hips in Memphis, the young men and women of Ballybannion (a small town in an anonymous part of Ireland) were trying to get it together in the local dancehall. In the Ireland of 1955, financial and other constraints meant there was only one night in the week where they could meet potential partners in the Tivoli Dance Hall, run by Mr and Mrs Muldoon (Frank Grimes and Rita Hamill). No alcohol allowed (though the men of the parish had their own means of sorting that out) and sex was pretty much out of the question.

The trouble was the girls had dreams of marrying Elvis (or at the very least an American businessman) but there was slim chance of that so they were stuck with the men they had grown up with, knowing that if they married any of them, they'd be resigned to a life they didn't want. The men wanted well just about anything would do. Particularly prized were buxom women with good child-bearing hips (Posh Spice and Paris Hilton take note, the rest of us can just remember that men were so much more easily pleased in the fifties)

Ros Scanlon's play has an authentic ring to it (not surprisingly as it is garnered from conversations she had with Irish immigrants in London), from the Irish band playing Irish tunes to the individual stories of the couples and singletons who are all desperate for love, yet destined to be star-crossed.

The individual tales of heartbreak were engaging: Mickey Finn (Aidan O'Neill) with something of a Jack-the-Lad reputation has his heart set on Mary (Caroline Madden). But Mary thinks he's a bit beneath her and can't quite forget the businessman who swept her, briefly, off her feet but never came back.

The real rake in all of this is the band singer, Frankie (Kieran Gough), who turns up late, makes a play for all the women, loves them and leaves them. We later learn that he has made the mysterious outsider, Nancy (Pamela Flanagan), pregnant but can't even remember her name and has no intention of carrying on the relationship.

Sean Og (Vincent Shiels) with twenty acres is quite a catch by Ballybannion standards but again he sets his sights on the wrong woman - the incredibly young Rosie (Holly Quinn) who is still at school and understandably does not want to sign her life away to an older farmer just yet.

No play depicting that era would be complete without emigration rearing its ugly head and this is no exception. Morris (Ciaran O'Driscoll), sporting a Saville Row suit, is fresh off the boat from London, having made his fortune. We later realise this is far from the truth and he's just putting a brave face on it. His tale is underpinned by the band singing 'The Mountains of Mourne', a cautionary song depicting the futility of digging for gold in the streets of London.

The saddest story though was reserved for Maggie (Mary O'Sullivan), now a little too old to hope that she would find a partner at the dance. Years previously she had saved her money and bought a fairytale wedding dress in the hope that she would one day wear it. She'd finally abandoned that hope and burned it without ever having come close to having the chance.

Scanlon's play is well-crafted: funny, nostalgic, and a sad reminder of the days when there was little you could do to change the hand of cards fate had dealt you. It ended on a slightly hopeful note, but importantly, not all of the characters' stories had happy endings. The 'cattle market' opening where women lined up hoping to be picked out by one of the men was so well done that it drew indignant gasps from the women in the audience. However, though the individual stories were strong, Scanlon was very ambitious in the amount of stories she told and I felt that a strong central narrative would have improved the overall impact of the play.

Clive Clark made good use of the space and his clear choreography of the large group of actors served the script very well. Costume designer Alana Ondrackova caught the mood of impoverished desperation. From Maggie's frumpy cardigan to Nancy's scarlet woman, we knew what each character's expectation was.

Though the themes are firmly grounded in Ireland, the sexual politics are fairly universal so it will appeal to more than the seventy-year-old Irish emigrants whose story it depicts.

Reviewer: Bronagh Taggart