A Bonfire of Vanities
Inish, County Cork. A town so emotionally staid it’s in mouldy blue need of a scandal. Several of which are duly delivered following the arrival of a touring thespian troupe. Invited by local hotelier, John Twohig, to help put Inish on the map, lovies Hector De La Mere, and his wife Constance Constantia, are engaged for an illuminating season of serious tea-ay-ter, designed to educate and elevate Inish’s culturally deprived population. Plays by Strindberg, Ibsen and the Russians no less. Tolstoy, and that other one who sounds like a head cold. Plays which have an unnerving impact on the seaside townsfolk. In “Drama at Inish,” Lennox Robinson’s divine parody of small town life and the affectations of theatre, attempts to bring some theatrical light into a lacklustre world leads to a raging bonfire of vanities. One that blazes with uproar and laughter in this brightly directed and perfectly performed production.
First produced at The Abbey in 1933, Robinson’s drawing room comedy originally poked fun at the hammy, theatrical styles of the day, and at how theatrical conventions often became personal pretensions. Which perhaps explains why "Drama at Inish" proves surprisingly robust today, worryingly so in certain respects for cutting so very close to several theatrical bones. Rather than simply holding a mirror up to life, it sees theatre as turning everything over to see what’s underneath as people storm through their emotional tantrums. Yet it’s all steeped in so much self deprecating, old world charm you forgive it almost everything. Not, however, its leaving a key storyline unresolved. If director, Cal McCrystal relocates the action from the 1930s to the 1960s it’s pretty hard to tell outside of a handful of tell-tale clues. Many found in Sarah Bacon’s superb set and costumes, wonderfully lit by Sinead McKenna. Resembling something out of an Agatha Christie novel, Bacon's bay windows, wireless radios, and whiskey decanters fill out an impressively large drawing room that's staggeringly well done. A room whose damp stained wallpaper peeling at the edges hints of fading glory. A dichotomy reinforced as flickers of the 1960s find expression in Anne Twohig’s lively costumes, offering a perpetual oasis of tasteless colour in a desert of lifeless suits.
Thematically, McCrystal’s time shift brings little new to proceedings, with awareness of the end days of the travelling repertory company being so underplayed as to be essentially invisible. Instead, what once were accepted social practices and dramatic conventions — loudly abusing a wife over exorbitant clothing bills, or a wilful young woman leaping into the arms of a gormless Mammy’s boy — don’t land quite as convincingly from todays perspective. Yet that’s okay, for under McCrystal’s shifting frames staging and the staged are being held up for scrutiny. As are representations of Stage Irish, with moments of Paddywhackery or Celtic overtones pushing the theme to the fore. But, as with everything else in "Drama at Inish," interrogation is never offered at the expense of having fun. Marrying the communal shenanigans of Whiskey Galore with a layer of Waiting for Guffmann, and just the smallest sprinkling of Fawlty Towers for good measure, "Drama at Inish" takes off like a bullet train as families, friends, former lovers and declaiming divas set the stage alight. If it deals heavily in archetypal jokes and set-ups — a whiskey guzzling dame, the hat that endlessly blows away, the cigarette that won’t light — when it comes to their execution, timing and deliver are right on the money. Throughout, McCrystal proves a master of the visual gag, which prove endless and endlessly entertaining.
In productions with so many larger than life characters, there’s always a risk of someone upstaging or stealing the scene. Which is avoided in this instance by everyone upstaging and stealing the scene. From Marcus Lamb’s fumbling Peter Hurley, a local TD with a hat affliction, to Aoibhinn McGinnity’s long suffering, spinster sister, Lizzie, comedy and chemistry are superb throughout. A delightful Mark O’Regan as the agitated and impatient John Twohig, and his culturally aspirational wife Anne, an implacably brilliant Helen Norton, are both terrific. As is their son Eddie, a wonderful Tommy Harris, desperately infatuated with the vivacious Christine, a superb Breffni Holahan. If Ian O’Reilly’s aspiring actor, Michael, delivers one of the best worse auditions of all time, his conflicted love interest, maid Helena, an impressive Grace Collender, does incredibly well despite having little to do. As does talentless newspaper reporter John Hegarty, a superb Kevin Trainor, along with an equally impressive Anthony Moriarty as the playfully sinister, ice cream loving William. An understated Nick Dunning proves deceptively brilliant as the declaiming Hector, knowing it’s better to play it as straight man to any woman who carries a skull in her handbag. Such as the whiskey loving Constance, a woman who suffers endless irritations, not least the pronunciation of her name, with Marion O’Dwyer giving a stellar performance worthy of a pantomime dame, capable of bringing the house down with her good vibrations alone. Jim Cunningham in an extended cameo as Garda Tom Mooney rounds out an impressive cast.
Poking fun at the stage and Stage Irish, "Drama at Inish’s" larger-than-life tale resides in a world where reporters and cops make convenient, well timed entrances, and thunder claps arrive on cue. If it parodies theatre and its affectations, alongside rural small town foibles, it does so lovingly and endearingly, with parodies that aren’t always as dated as you might think. Like theatrical pulp fiction, "Drama at Inish" is both culturally astute and something of a delicious guilty pleasure. One whose apparent artlessness belies a huge level of sophistication. From beginning to end, "Drama at Inish" delivers an absolute riot of hilarity and laughter. It may not be packaged in all the seasonal wrappings, but it has all the ingredients for being a sumptuous Christmas gift. So gift someone. Or gift yourself. "Drama at Inish" is simply too much fun to be missed.
"Drama at Inish" by Lennox Robinson, directed by Cal MyCrystal, an Abbey Theatre production, runs at The Abbey Theatre until January 24, 2020.
For more information, visit The Abbey Theatre.