Review by Richard Fitt
Performance on 29th March 2023
Director: David Russell
Musical director: Kaye Tompkins
Choreographer: Davina Beegoo-Price
I have to declare I am not familiar with this work by American Playwright Terrence McNally about an Irish bus conductor struggling with his sexuality in 1964 Catholic Dublin, where bigotry and guilt were the norm, so a visit to Sharnbrook promised to be an intriguing evening. First made as a film in 1994, the musical hit the stage on Broadway in 2002. But it only had a limited run in the West End in late 2009 and early 2010 so it had, until now, passed me by.
The stage which was under the management of Elaina Waterhouse and built by ‘The Monday Crew’ was bare except for the wall to the rear with waist high, half vertical slatted wood with dado rail and a mini stage fully curtained, centre rear. This represented the village hall in Dublin where the subject of this musical, Alfie Byrne, is the director of an amateur theatre company. The band, instead of being in its usual position in the gallery above the stage, was for once positioned firmly on it, stage right with most of the band positioned with their backs to the audience. I assume this was to provide a ceili band in the ‘village hall’ for various dances and musical numbers, but it did lead to a very well populated stage at times and one or two awkward exits to their rear. The clever bit however was the use of chairs, (or “chairography” to quote David Russell in the programme!) brought on and off very smoothly by the cast as needed, to serve various scenarios including the layout of seats on a bus and the inside of the catholic church. Projected above the stage was a black and white image of what the stage was representing at any one time. Neat!
Lighting designed by Ricky Johnson and operated by ‘The Standing In The Wings’ Technical Team was very efficient and certainly kept the crew busy, with a particular nod to Condoleezza Hankins, Gail Thorburn and Alison Moles on the very busy spot lights. Sound by Mark Luckin was mainly very well balanced between dialogue and my aging ears ‘bête noir,’ underscoring! Not easy to do, so well done. I say mainly however, because there were times when only the other side of the auditorium laughed and the odd joke went missing to our side, but that may of course have been delivery rather than technical…?
Costumes by Virginia Pope and her ‘Pin Up Girls,’ Ann West, Julie Poole, Gil Ridley, Deanne Tucker and Kim Hawking, did an absolutely superbly authentic job of transporting us back to the 1960’s! I’d swear some of those clothes came straight out of my parents’ wardrobe! Props were provided by Elaina Waterhouse, Bridie Gibbs and Chloe Talbot. Particularly like the severed head and the pigs trotters (more on them later).
The excellent band consisted of Musical Director Kaye Tompkins (Keys), Richard James (Guitar), Tom Smith (Violin), Matthew Sweet (Cello), Lee Wong (Bass) and Katie Sazanova (Flute). And all those splendid ceili dances were choreographed by Davina Beego-Price, who is rapidly gaining a reputation in that discipline.
I don’t think I’ve ever given credit to a show’s safety notice before, but this one is well worth a mention. I only wish I could remember the exact words, but it went something along the lines of being 1964 and mobile phones weren’t invented, so turning off any tape machine recording devices and our reel to reel image recorders were the instructions. Very clever, excellent opening laugh.
The cast was exceptionally good, well-rehearsed and brimming with confidence. This musical contains a lot of pathos, deep soul searching and mood swings and being able to put that over with sincerity and conviction in both dialogue and song takes a good deal of skill and experience, and then add in doing it all in an Irish brogue. The result was riveting despite the often depressing story line, but they still kept a thread of typical Irish optimism continually running throughout. That is acting of the highest order!
Our leading man Graham Breeze, as Alfie Byrne was absolutely first class in the part. His portrayal of a man in deep conflict with himself, his inner loneliness yet outward optimism came through in every scene and was the central core of the whole play. Fabulous voice to go with it from the opening number of ‘A Man of No Importance,’ ‘First Rehearsal’ through to ‘Welcome to the World,’ he was a class act.
Annette Codrington as his sister Lily was no slouch either and the empathy shown between brother and sister added yet another dimension to this complex play.
Gordon Ritchie as bus driver Robbie, whom innocence as to Alfie’s true feelings for him comes across brilliantly. Particularly well highlighted when Alfie catches Robbie having an affair with Mrs Patrick. Lovely duet of ‘The Streets of Dublin’ with Alfie.
John Stevens was very much a standout part as Lily’s fiancé, the butcher Mr Carney and as Oscar Wilde. Particularly when he betrays Alfie and has the play stopped and The Players disbanded by the church, and his excellent rendition of ‘Man in The Mirror’ with Alfie. And the splendid way he used the pig’s trotters to dance on his butcher’s counter in the opening number was a wonderful addition to the comedy.
Two little character parts I particularly liked that brought some much-needed humour were Keith Loynes as Father Kenny whose expressions and attitude whilst taking confession were priceless. And Neil Clarke as Rasher Flynn who spend most of the time with an unlit cigarette hanging from his mouth.
Daisy Wayman as Adele also stood out a mile, as both the false love interest for Alfie and as representing the new generation of Irish youth coming through. Particularly poignant scene where she confesses to being pregnant and is leaving for England to have the baby.
Other notables were Joanna Beech as the heart and soul of the players Mrs Grace, Leisa Cooke as the somewhat two faced Mrs Patrick caught having an affair, Jenny Tymon-Robins as Mrs Curtin, Becky Woodham as Miss Crowe, Paula Fraser as Kitty and Sarah O’Hara, Mark Woodham as Baldy the widower who meets Alfie in the graveyard whilst paying respects to his late wife, Lester Cooke as Ernie whose portrayal of a man who couldn’t act to save his life was one of the comedic highlights of the show. And Tom Carter as the rather nasty ‘queer basher’ Breton Beret, who leads Alfie on and then has him beaten up.
Full credit therefore to Director David Russell for even attempting this complex fast paced musical, let alone actually bringing it off. The scene changes were particularly impressive and the ‘Chairography’ a masterpiece in stage direction. I can’t say I’d rush off to see it in the West End and can see why it didn’t last long with British audiences. Even Sharnbrook have failed to sell it out, but now I’ve seen McNally’s musical I’m certainly glad I did, if only for the supreme heights to which Sharnbrook rose to put it on the stage so splendidly. A fantastic piece of work by all involved!