In 1983, Francis Ford Coppola’s cult classic movie, The Outsiders, introduced a then unknown Tom Cruise, Rob Lowe, Patrick Swayze, Emilo Estevez, Ralph Macchio, C. Thomas Howell, Diane Lane and Matt Dillon onto an unsuspecting world, launching the acting careers of many who have since become household names. The same might hold true of “The Spinning Heart,” which includes a Gaiety School of Acting fraternity featuring some of the cream of the crop from The Gaiety School’s alumni. Yet if The Outsiders kicked ass, “The Spinning Heart” could do with an ass kicking at times. Adapted from Donal Ryan’s novel of the same name, “The Spinning Heart” is a redo of an earlier production that still remains problematic. One that marries weak production values, and weak staging, with some top class performances.
Author Ryan might like to argue that “The Spinning Heart” is not about the recession, but the recession informs so much of his fractured tale it’s questionable if it could survive with the same intensity without it. What begins with a story of a son feeling emasculated having recently lost his job, and now wanting to kill his father, and ends with a tale of a kidnapped child from a ghost estate, "The Spinning Heart" situates these two stories next to one another, played out through a series of twenty monologues offering multiple perspectives on the same people and events. Memories, desires, jobs lost, hints of affairs and reflections on the recession are juxtaposed to craft a collection of snapshots of a rural community, reminiscent of Eugene O’Brien’s excellent Eden. In the end, the fathers of the country, and the farm, might inflict untold damage on their children, but are we doomed to always repeat what was handed down to us? Or is there hope we can somehow break free from the sins of the fathers?
Ryan’s novel, built around a series of interlinked stories, presenting a rural community in 2010 as if viewed through a prism, has an unconventional structure making it demanding to adapt. Even so, Paul Brennan's brave adaptation still proves problematic. Brennan’s script might remain faithful to the novel in many respects, but it can feel overly long onstage, presenting itself more as a series of self-contained monologues rather than something performatively cohesive. Indeed, “The Spinning Heart” arose out of Brennan’s classes at The Gaiety School of Acting in 2015 and still retains that sensibility of having been crafted, not for stage, but as an end of term showcase. Heavy on character study and description, with barely a trace of narrative flow at times, the sheer number of Brennan’s monologues, some of which are extremely engaging, makes significant demands on the audience’s engagement the further “The Spinning Heart” goes. Something Brennan’s staging does little to alleviate.
Production values are uncharacteristically poor, reinforcing a sense of drama school minimalism. A series of chairs less than imaginatively used, for the most part, during dull transitions; a plain screen functioning like a giant, coloured mood ring; and what looks like a low budget smoke machine bellowing volumes of smoke onstage, reinforce the atmosphere of a drama school production. If the idea was to pare back design to focus on performance it backfires more often than not, as design becomes distracting. As does the curious use of presences and witnesses, which translates as moody and broody tableaux in which unused cast members stand about, alone or in groups, often casting frozen stares at the actor performing their monologue. Post intermission there’s a greater effort to make transitions between monologues more engaging, and to open up possibilities for monologues through more engagement with presences and witnesses, but it all comes too late, feeling like an afterthought. As are efforts to wrap it all up with some overtly sentimental music and far away stares.
Elevating “The Spinning Heart” into something that often crackles with energy is a cast of Gaiety School alumni who deliver excellent performances as “The Spinning Heart’s” troupe of often emasculated men and long suffering women. With each cast member playing two characters, all are incredibly strong throughout. Killian Coyle as pretty boy Booby might overreach with the tears on occasion, and his sinister Montessori teacher might be a device more than a character, but Coyle acquits himself well, as well as double jobbing as one of “The Spinning Heart’s” producers. Shane O'Regan excels, as does Ethan Dillon, both giving extraordinarily strong performances in both their roles. Toni O’Rourke is beautifully understated as an angelic wife and soul-dead mother, as is Gordon Quigley as the man who can’t get out of bed for reasons he doesn’t want to talk about. Madi O’Carroll as a disappointing daughter, and long suffering martyr-in-her-own-mind, is extremely impressive, with O’Carroll adding some fiddle playing to her beautifully delivered performance. Gerard Howard as the father Frank is both convincing and compelling, as is Cillian O’Gairbhi whose excellent Pixies monologue is delivered pitch perfectly. Caoimhe Mulcahy as your worse imaginable boss and the single mum flirting for love, and Sinead Fox as a child caught up in an adult world and a wanton woman with all the secrets, both light up the stage with fantastic performances, rounding out an extremely impressive ensemble.
For some, “The Spinning Heart” will still seem a glorified Gaiety School of Acting showcase masquerading as an original and independent production. A production that, at best, could be seen to suggest an inability to let go of the apron strings, at worse, an unhealthy exclusivity. Yet if “The Spinning Heart” is a school reunion showcase, it’s one where every student is getting an A plus. Still, those coming to this production, especially those who saw the earlier production of “The Spinning Heart,” could be forgiven for feeling a little disappointed. Given its previous production history, and opportunity to respond to critical feedback, it’s disappointing this production still hasn’t shaken off the classroom cobwebs and developed into something theatrically more substantial. In fairness, if Brennan’s adaptation and staging are less than they could have been, his work with his cast has delivered some extraordinary performances. A four-star cast who serve a two-star production far better than it serves them.
“The Spinning Heart” by Donal Ryan, adapted and directed by Paul Brennan, produced by Verdant Productions in association with Killian Coyle & The Gaiety Theatre, runs at the Gaiety Theatre until September 23rd
For more information, visit The Gaiety Theatre.