Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

The Dead School

Patrick McCabe
Co-produced by Livin' Dred and Nomad
Tricycle Theatre
(2010)

Production photo

This co-production by Irish companies Livin' Dred and Nomad brings Patrick McCabe's 1995 novel to the stage with mixed results.

Despite imaginative direction by Pádraic McIntire and the collective efforts of a five strong ensemble led by Sean Campion, the underlying story does not seem strong enough to support 2½ hours of running time.

Set in a fading, crumbling schoolroom, designed by Maree Kearns, the play tells the interlocking stories of a seemingly cursed headmaster Raphael Bell, played by Campion, and one of his junior colleagues, Nick Lee as Malachy Dudgeon.

It does so from before the cradle to (in at least one case) the grave, using a surreal style of writing and presentation that brings to mind both Enda Walsh and Samuel Beckett, with a touch of music hall thrown in.

Indeed, the soundtrack designed by Cormac Carroll adds greatly to the entertainment, Bell being characterised by folk and classical music, while Dudgeon's life is played out to the songs of Van Morrison.

Both have troubled early lives before apparently finding their metier at St Patrick's College, a Dublin school peopled by typically obnoxious children, not to mention an awkward priest and shocking parents' representative.

What the pair have in common is a degree of hopelessness and, eventually, a tragedy that joins them together as community pariahs. Before then, poor Malachy loses his wife to a wannabe rock star and the teaching duo struggle to gain and retain the respect that their positions deserve and require.

Pat McCabe spends a considerable amount of time rooting around in this pair's often fevered brains trying to make sense of the lives that they are leading, perhaps concluding that depression seems a reasonable reaction to their experiences.

The strongest elements of the production are achieved thanks to the energetic efforts not only of Campion and Lee but also their trio of colleagues, Carrie Crowley, Gemma Reeves and Peter Daly (particularly unsettling in his role as The Beggarman), each of whom dashes around playing multiple roles with great energy and commitment.

The histories of two ordinary men are told imaginatively in song, physical performance and comedy sketch, often at breathless pace although with considerable repetition.

This style can be attractive and to a degree papers over the cracks of a wafer-thin storyline that tells us little new about either the human condition or the life and politics of Ireland.

Playing until 13 March

Reviewer: Philip Fisher