Never The Twain
Pontius, the man from the Midlands, is a middle-aged farmer who loves to hate musicals. He’s also a father preparing to meet his twenty-one year old daughter for the first time in seventeen years. Looking for the perfect gift in Clerys on the day it finally closed, Pontius is psyching himself up before they're reunited in the Gresham Hotel. In Pat Kinevane’s play with much music, “Before,” one man's self-proclaimed hatred of musicals is a case of the lad that doth protest too much. An unbalanced if ambitious production, with Kinevane delivering some powerhouse moments, “Before” attempts to reconcile a number of irreconcilable opposites while giving voice, and song, to a critical issue; the legalised alienation of unmarried and adoptive fathers from their children. Yet if “Before” is a song and dance act with its heart in the right place, in the end it sells its dramatic soul for thirty pieces of musical theatre schmaltz.
More an interrupted chronology than a structured narrative “Before” follows Pontius from childhood to Clerys where he prepares for the big moment. For a long time little of real interest happens. Aside, that is, from some unexpected narrative thunderbolts coming out of the blue, hitting like a car crash, or history repeating itself, bringing some convenient kicks and twists. Throughout, orphans and substitute parents abound as Pontius expounds on his love-hate relationship with musicals, which started with Mam, an expert costume maker, and Dad, a shy singer who loved musical theatre when he was young. A wild night of passion in Dublin opens up new possibilities for an older Pontius when a daughter, Astor, is conceived unexpectedly. An event which proves both joyful and tragic, raising far more questions than it answers when he's forbidden from seeing her. In between, some charming, and often hilarious moments of direct address go a long way to compensating for what’s not always there. As well as for what is there. Such as an over abundance of less than stellar song and dance routines that grate against the heft of “Before’s” central story. Interrupting rather than informing it, they feel lightweight and wholly out of sync with the subject matter they’re failing to deal with. Referencing Clerys, Irish history, and recurring religious motifs throughout helps add a degree of subtext and texture.
Where Kinevane’s superb Silent smartly evoked the silent movie era, “Before” drowns in the backhanded homage it pays to the musical, with Denis Clohessy's workable compositions, featuring some clever lyrics by Kinevane, both subverting and celebrating the genre. If the best musicals see their best songs evolving seamlessly from the action, here songs function as annoying interruptions at critical moments, a device that overplays its hand. Indeed, they constantly seem to be purposely declaring, ‘forget the play, this is the singing and dancing bit.’ This disconnect between throwaway songs and the density of the play’s subject matter compounds problems further with “Before” opting to trade emotions for sentimentality, dishing out several spoonfuls of sugary schmaltz in an effort to make it all easier to swallow. If playful songs which acknowledge that any sort of nonsense can happen in a musical raise a laugh or two, songs ultimately prove inadequate when it comes to carrying the emotional heft later on, as a weak duet makes all too clear. Lyrically, spotting the countless, often subtle references to classic musicals will undoubtedly massage an aficionado’s ego. For everyone else there’s a strong possibility that if you disliked the conventions of musical theatre before “Before,” you’re likely to like them even less afterwards.
Part of the problem is Kinevane himself who’s just mind blowingly brilliant when he plays it straight portraying the soul searing, soul searching anguish of a father ripped away from the child he adores. Collapsing in despair, his voice a broken bellow of rage and pain, Kinevane has you feeling every ounce of it. Until he dons a white holster, does a little shimmy, and sings another lacklustre show tune. In no time at all he comes to resemble that other ‘bald bastard who can’t sing’ in a musical, not helped by the recorded soundtrack constantly overpowering Kinevane’s modest vocals, matched by some equally modest dancing. Sounding like a natural baritone singing above its range, Kinevane’s voice often struggles against the music, sounding weaker when upstage, and shows an out of sync overlap with his recorded singing in places. Jim Culleton’s direction show flashes of genius at times, as in a Clerys clock rendered by way of handheld screens, yet Emma O’Kane’s disappointing choreography fails to go anywhere interesting.
In the end, “Before” struggles to make its light musical interludes match its weighty themes in a sustained or meaningful way. For while "Before” aspires to some heavy duty schmaltz, it also aspires to speak for the huge number of fathers who commit suicide, especially at this time of year, for being unjustly denied access to their children. A balance it never achieves for never the twain meet. If “Before” aims for the depth of a Next To Normal, it delivers more of a musical version of An Affair To Remember, with its sentimentalised, tragic cop out at the end trying to push all the emotional buttons. Looking like a prolonged vaudeville routine at times, one that wants to be a musical yet is punching above its weight, “Before” fails to find the high notes on too many occasions. Even if, in places, it serves as an acute reminder that Kinevane is a truly remarkable performer capable of delivering profound moments.
“Before” by Pat Kinevane, presented by Fishamble: The New Play Company, played at Draíocht, Blanchardstown on November 23 and 24. It continues its national tour.
For more information, visit Fishamble.