An Ugly Duckling
Early omens are not at all promising for "The Voice Within - A Showband Story,” a play with music by Carol Gleeson and Helen Spring. Indeed, omens are downright dismal. Instead of the advertised Showband driven story it purports to offer, "The Voice Within" opens like a cheap Dickensian rip off. A soon to be orphaned Tiny Tim lookalike (superbly done by a young Joe Gallagher) sings and dances with his poorly mother in a series of sloppily staged scenarios. Soundbite scenes that are not only unnecessary, they’re smothered in so much sentimental gloop you fear you’ll need an insulin shot. Already "The Voice Within" is looking like it doesn’t trust itself, trying to yank the emotional cliches for a reaction. Indeed, five minutes in, if you’re not there for the Showband tunes, you’re likely searching for a credible excuse to leave, worrying you may not last till intermission, never mind the two plus hours. Yet five minutes before intermission, writers and directors Gleeson and Spring have effected, if not quite a 180 degree turn, then at least a 125 degree turn of monumental proportions. Yes, you’re still slipping in pools of pathos that slide into pathetic and unneeded sentimentality; but there’s real heart to this ugly duckling. And charm, and humour, and joy, along with some first class singing of some classic Showband tunes, and some top class performances from a stunning ensemble. One whose group work, like "The Voice Within’s” strongest moments, can be jaw droppingly good.
Including some stunning vocals from Seán MacMahon as Tommy O’Grady; a lonely ugly duckling whose shyness MacMahon beautifully conveys. Tommy might look as wooden as they come, but he’s a voice like flamed embers, with such power, warmth and resonance it could keep you cozy on a cold winter’s night. An opportunity to head a show band in 60’s Donegal sees a reluctant Tommy shedding his ugly duckling feathers and acquiring some shiny new swan ones. Except they don’t quite fit as well as he thought they might. Meanwhile, there’s the soft spoken Sarah and her barmaid friend Mary, both of whom fancy Tommy, superbly realised by Spring and Gleeson respectively. By way of the responsible Sarah, and the manacled to her father Mary, the shifting attitudes of 1960s Ireland, especially towards women, are cleverly exposed and played with. But in this tale of two women in love with the same man, only one can win his affections. Or will everyone end up walking the streets in the rain?
A labour of love for Gleeson and Spring, "The Voice Within" sees this mind-bogglingly talented duo succeeding far more often than they stumble. For stumble they do. With "The Voice Within" preaching almost exclusively to the converted, it awkwardly overplays its hand when it comes to historical detail. Yet it’s not the nostalgia that trips it up, its the cheap sentimentality it never needed. Enjoying retro flavours similar to The Night Joe Dolan’s Car Broke Down, a sickening sentimentality might play easier to some sections of its target older audience, but its success here deprives "The Voice Within" of the opportunity of reaching a much wider audience. Which it could very well do with some propitious edits. Including taking a serious look at its second act. If pre intermissions has us following Tommy’s rise, everything after has nowhere as interesting to go, even if the song driven opening is superb. Instead, the second act often lapses into overdone histrionics as alcoholism, embittered fathers, and love rivals offer revelations that turn into over explained rants. All of which is made more pointed for Gleeson and Spring being superbly brilliant at most other times, delivering well timed humour, superbly observed characters, with paced and pitched dialogue often as smooth and as smart as they come.
If, as directors, Gleeson and Spring occasional struggle with positioning in small scenes, their group scenes simply stagger belief for being exquisitely executed and organised. So richly detailed and perfectly composed, you’d think they’d been shaped in the West End. Indeed "The Voice Within” often succeeds better when it deals in scale, with the Rock Around The Clock rehearsal and audition scene delivering one of the best comedy outings to be had anywhere. Gleeson and O’Grady also know how to elicit strong focused, performances, putting together a tight large ensemble, including some first rate musicians and nifty dancers, showing not an ounce of dead weight between them. As well as recognising some terrific acting talent along the way. While all cast shone exceptionally in their moment, Helena Begley’s guardian of virtue Bridget, and Daniel Ryan’s delusional Norman O’Gorman are a sheer joy. Lynn Carter as Tess Harte, a sort of Gidget like kid sister to the older Sarah, simply lights up the stage, suggesting the sky could well be the limit for this remarkably charismatic young actress.
When it comes to audaciousness, Gleeson and Spring are in a league of their own. Having set up A Likely Story Productions three years ago, they not only write, dance, direct, produce and pay impeccable attention to detail (reflected in Marie Cusaks clunky but richly informative set), they aim for, and frequently hit, the highest of standards. Granted, their original lyrics, to music by Owen C. Lynch, lag far behind the Showband tunes they honour, but it’s to their immense credit that the Showband era is celebrated without being relied on to do all the heavy lifting. And celebrated it is, with all the joy and gusto of a singalong. And you will singalong, to all the great stars and their classic songs.
Should you find yourself with a spare million or two lying around whenever Gleeson and Spring pitch their next show; give them every penny they ask for. Their script and direction might require some finessing, but when it comes to putting together a musical show, Gleeson and Spring are looking like the hottest and most hard working new talents in town. Indeed, on the evidence of "The Voice Within,” they might well take over the world.
"The Voice Within - A Showband Story", a play with music by Carol Gleeson and Helen Spring, presented by A Likely Story Production, runs at The Civic Theatre, Tallaght, until July 5th
For more information, visit The Civic Theatre.