A Man of No Importance
Book by Terrence McNally, lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, music by Stephen Flaherty
Union Theatre, Southwark
Based on a film of the same name, A Man of No Importance is a chamber musical set in 1960s Dublin. It has a charmingly unconventional hero, Alfie Byrne; a middle-aged poetry reciting bus conductor by day, in the evenings Alfie is the director of the local church amateur dramatics group, The St Emelda Players.
Outsider Alfie is nothing less than obsessed with Oscar Wilde. He takes cucumber sandwiches in his packed lunch in homage to The Importance of Being Ernest, Wilde's voice guides him in moments of introspection and The St Emelda Players are working their way through his cannon of plays. When a lovely young stranger, Adele, takes a ride on his bus, Alfie finds the leading lady he has been missing and determines that the next production will be Salome with her in the starring role.
Lily, Alfie's sister, attempts to match-make her brother with Adele by tempting her with Alfie's homemade cakes. She is keen to escape the family home she shares with Alfie, having vowed not to marry Mr Carney, the butcher who courts her with promises of lamb every Sunday, until Alfie is settled with a wife: anything else 'wouldn't be right'. Alfie though is in a prison of a different kind and Adele is not the explication for either him or Lily.
Producing Salome is the catalyst of Alfie's journey to self-acceptance and re-entry into the community though a leap of faith or two is needed for the plot: surely intelligent and thoughtful Alfie would have the foresight to anticipate that the church authorities would not accept the salaciousness of Salome as 'Art', and the close-knit community would realise that Alfie is homosexual even if social taboos prohibited such things being said out loud. However, these faults are easily overlooked when a book has the humour and understated strength that this one has and the production, directed Ben De Wynter, is so engaging.
Also up for a big pat on the back is designer James Turner for a set that reflects the humbleness of the Byrne household, and the budget facilities of the church hall rather than just the limited finances of the producers, and choreographer Phyllida Crowley-Smith for devising lively ensemble pieces, especially "Going Up" which was delightfully funny, though the spinning umbrellas device is a cliché she should have avoided.
The unpretentious and moving lyrics of Lynn Ahrens are an accomplishment. They are almost pedestrian in their lack of complexity but in so being completely suit the unsophisticated characters that sing them, and the unfussy, well-matched score by Stephen Flaherty evokes a traditional Dublin.
The star of the show is Paul Clarkson. His is an outstanding performance that captures Alfie's innocence and self-effacing demeanour whilst always having great presence on stage. The perfect stillness of "Man in the Mirror" shows not only De Wynter's good directorial judgment but shows off Clarkson's interpretive skill, as does "Welcome to the World".
Róisín Sullivan stands out as Adele, the shopgirl "from someplace north of nowhere" who gets the chance to play a princess. Similarly Patrick Kelliher is memorable in the role of bus driver Robbie, target of Alfie's hidden affections but who is himself trapped by a secret love.
"A Man of No Importance" runs until 5th December with performances on Tuesday to Saturday 7:30pm, and Saturday and Sunday matinees at 3:00pm
Simon Sladen reviewed the West End transfer at the Arts Theatre
Reviewer: Sandra Giorgetti