Dublin Theatre Festival 2016: Donegal
A rhinestone cowgirl and nobody's child
The Abbey Theatre are attempting something a little different with their latest production, ‘Donegal,’ a musical play by playwright, Frank McGuinness, and composer Kevin Doherty. Yet in truth, while all deserve to have the effort applauded, the result doesn’t completely work. At its core, ‘Donegal’ suffers a major identity crisis. Musical play or musical theatre, ‘Donegal’ can’t quite make up its mind. In the end, ‘Donegal’ feels like a difficult marriage, one in which McGuinness’ delightfully acerbic script is a vicious, venomous joy at times, but one where the music and lyrics by McGuinness and Doherty, with arrangements by Conor Linehan, just aren’t up to the same standard. With script and music struggling to find a workable marriage, ‘Donegal’s’ comedic, verbal invectives prove to be far more interesting and enjoyable, even if their dominance risks ‘Donegal’ becoming something of a one trick pony.
With its aging Country singer and rising Country star, ‘Donegal’s’ tale of the faded, former queen of Irish Country Music, Irene Day, falling on hard times, often feels like the TV series ‘Nashville’ told with a Snow White twist. Once again a wicked queen despises the beauty of her younger protégé, except this protégé is Irene's own son Jackie, just back from America with his girlfriend, or beard, where his Country musical star is on the rise. Pride prevents them from telling each other what they really need, but the repression and resentment has got to surface somewhere. When all the family get together it turns into a bout of ‘Last Man Standing,’ with all stepping into the ring to swing wildly with their most vicious and vindictive remarks. If the family dynamic feels like ‘August: Osage County’ at times, it’s played out as a poorly choreographed episode of ‘Glee,’ where songs often intrude and disrupt more than contribute. In the end, things might become a little clearer, but the big finish never quite arrives.
Director Conall Morrison looks decidedly more comfortable with McGuinness’s dramatic text than with Doherty and Linehan’s musical contribution. Indeed, ‘Donegal’ is one of McGuinness’s most ruthlessly funny and thought provoking scripts at times, asking some big questions about the changing face of Ireland, our sense of identity, sense of home, of religion, of our relationship to the fading past and the uncharted future. Yet if ‘Donegal’s' text is often hilarious, some aspects, such as the father, mother, son dynamic, or the relationship between Jackie and his American girlfriend, feel underdeveloped in places. Furthermore, its scathing comedy becomes repetitive over time. And musically it’s often quite muddled.
If the opening track, ‘By My Mother’s Grave,’ wonderfully performed by Siobhan McCarthy, captures perfectly that Margo styled, Showband era sound, even if lyrically it goes a little too over the top, this initial promise isn’t followed up on. Less successful are the lyrics and music of the Stetson wielding, Jackie Day. The sound of the successful, contemporary, Country Music star just isn’t there, with songs often drifting in and out of Country, or landing somewhere else entirely. On tracks like ‘Ladies in Waiting’ there’s an almost late 70’s, New York, love ballad vibe with its beautiful sounding clarinet. Sure sounds sweet, but it sure ain’t Country. Indeed, the band, though excellent musicians, seem a little like misfits whose live performance is unable to emulate Jackie’s big Country stadium sound, sounding instead like a pub covers band which no amount of ingenious lighting by Ben Ormerod can disguise. Vocally there are issues too, with Ruth McGill, Killian Donnelly and Megan Riordan, each naturally gifted singers, but ones whose tones and timbre sounded more Choral than Country in places.
Structurally, where songs serve as intros or transitions between scenes, they function incredible well, even if lyrically they disappoint and don’t deliver much to inform the action. Yet when they begin to spring up mid scene, along with musical accompaniment, there’s a shift from musical play to musical theatre that doesn’t work as well as it might. A shift not helped by disappointing and uncomfortable looking choreography. Indeed, songs sung or played acoustically in the direct context of the scene are far more successful than those with musical or choreographic accompaniment, with the finale ‘Donegal’ sounding far more poignant when played acoustically alone than as the shows poorly realised big finish. The inclusion of classic Irish tunes like ‘Love is Pleasing,’ ‘Carrickfergus’ and ‘Phil the Fluter’s Ball,' becomes a double edged sword, serving to set a standard against which ‘Donegal’s’ original compositions pale considerably in comparison.
If musically problems dominate, there’s nothing amiss with performances. Megan Riordian as the unwelcome Yank, Eleanor Methven as the hard drinking Joanne, Ruth McGill as the bobble headed, childless Triona, and Keith McErlean as her waster husband, Liam, each turn in incredibly strong performances, with McErlean’s rendition of ‘Carrickfergus’ being particularly memorable. Frank Laverty as manager and father Conor, and Killian Donnelly as his independently successful son, Jackie, are equally strong, with their father son confrontation being one of ‘Donegal’s’ delights. As is Siobhan McCarthy, whose excellent performance as Irene Day was right on the money as the singer with instantly forgettable songs, whose music is a nostalgic embarrassment, but who keeps walking after midnight, searching for a way to keep on going. John Kavanagh as the world weary Hugo, and Deirdre Donnelly as the scathing, matriarch Magdalene, are show stealingly funny who, aside from having all the best lines, also display exquisite comic timing, alone worth the price of admission.
Throughout ‘Donegal,’ the place itself looms large, a presence that’s as much a question, a longing, a memory and a state of being. As are family. Country music, not so much. If musically ‘Donegal’ doesn’t deliver as well as it should, textually it has some of McGuinness’s most memorable and funniest lines. With top class performances by a top class cast, ‘Donegal’ delivers a thoroughly entertaining night of theatre.
‘Donegal’ by Frank McGuinness, with music by Kevin Doherty, runs at The Abbey Theatre as part of Dublin Theatre Festival. Running until November 19th