Dublin Theatre Festival 2019: The Alternative
Every Flavour Of Laugher
It began with a wild, wacky, yet somewhat wonderful idea. Solicit submissions for an artists support programme that culminates in the production of a play for Ireland. In Fishamble: The New Play Company’s inaugural A Play For Ireland, winners Michael Patrick and Oisín Kearney’s “The Alternative” imagines an Ireland which remained part of the United Kingdom. As far as stories or characters go, “The Alternative” is as flimsy as they come and shows little resolution. As far as comedies go, “The Alternative” delivers a wild, wacky, and somewhat wonderful political comedy. One likely to have you laughing your head off right from the get go.
In a vein similar to Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle,“The Alternative” revisions a different outcome to recent history, by way of alternate dimensions suggested through filmed images projected onto a screen. Set on the eve of a referendum to determine whether Ireland should remain part of the UK, BBC Dublin’s TV Studio, a clever set by Maree Kearns wonderfully lit by Mark Galione, is preparing to host a heated, live debate. Staunch Leave supporter Peter Keogh, a Gombeen politician as shrewd as the day is long, is ready to lock horns with Remain advocate, British and Irish Prime Minister Ursula Lysaght, the self-proclaimed soul of political reason rocking up to the microphone in a clutching red dress. Around them frantic fanatics, schizophrenic daughters, back stabbing producers, and one sickeningly slick journalist ensure it’s all about ready to kick off. And kick off it does, as riots break out, daughters breakdown, and a voice breaks through from another dimension giving clues to a mysterious death. Meanwhile the question remains hotly and hilariously debated: should Ireland stay or should Ireland go?
Evoking Brexit, nationalist identity, the recent Scottish referendum, and maybe just a smidgen of Stiff Little Fingers, “The Alternative” taps into the political zeitgeist to ask questions about Irish identity. Indeed, it’s a testament to Patrick and Kearney that they get so much comedy mileage riffing on the same chord. From knowing smiles to laughing out loud, “The Alternative” generates every flavour of laugher by way of its preceptively smart and detailed re-imaginings. Yet characters feel barely sketched, having little to offer compared to the plays political playfulness. Stories, too, are decidedly lightweight. A stormy father daughter relationship between the pressured producer Richard Devlin, a superb Lorcan Cranitch, and his suspicious schizophrenic daughter Grainne, a terrific Maeve Fitzgerald, never really sells itself. Nor does Grainne’s lightweight friendship with assistant producer, Hannah, a put upon, ambitious woman superbly played by Rachel O’Byrne.
Thankfully, as with Haughey/Gregory, director Jim Culleton manages to take something overtly political and make it hugely entertaining, ensuring its slim characters are deeply personable. No mean feat with the personal coming in a distant second to the political, wherein professional relationships have far more substance. A delightfully placid Arthur Riordan as Keogh, and a superbly controlled Karen Adriff as Lysaght, generate much of the heated energy, doling out fraught and fanciful arguments which have quite the sting in their comedic tail. Cameos onscreen, courtesy of some smart AV, see Peter Daly, Fionn Foley, and an delightfully agitated Roseanna Purcell, among others, shifting focus from the stage to the street, making for some hilarious and disquieting moments. But it’s an engrossing Rory Nolan as the slick John Fitzgibbon, the kind of TV journalist you hate to love, who steals the show, delivering a comedy gold standard performance every second he takes to the stage.
For those not from Ireland, “The Alternative” might feel like one long in-joke strung together by a half baked story. Even so, it’s a very good joke indeed. And one that’s told very well. Like its self-serving politicians, “The Alternative” might not make its case convincingly, but its purpose was never to find an answer, but to get you to think. And to laugh. Then laugh some more. It may not be a play for Ireland for all time, but it certainly has something to say to this time. One of the cleverest, funniest, Irish political comedies in recent years, “The Alternative” knows how to have fun with itself, and its subject matter, and isn’t afraid of doing so. Or should that be British comedy? Either way, be upstanding for the National Anthem. And for “The Alternative.”
“The Alternative” by Michael Patrick and Oisín Kearney, directed by Jim Culleton, presented by Fishamble: The New Play Company, in association with Draoícht, The Everyman, Lime Tree Theatre/Belltable, Lyric Theatre, Pavillon Theatre and Town Hall Theatre, runs as part of Dublin Theatre Festival 2019 at The Pavillon Theatre until September 29 before transferring to Draoícht for October 4 and 5.
For more information, visit Dublin Theatre Festival.