All the Angels
Rebecca O'Mara and Brian Doherty in All the Angels. Image Pat Redmond
T'is the season for Handel's Messiah. That time of year when perennial pilgrims parade their way to St Patrick's Cathedral. For an oratorio written for Easter that has become synonymous with Christmas. Which, as any self respecting Dubliner will tell you, had it's very first performance in Dublin on April 13,1742 at the Fishamble Music Hall. The occasion of which forms the basis for Nick Drake's All the Angels. Ensuring if Messiah has become a Christmas tradition, All the Angels might well become one too.
Despite being steeped in factual historical detail, All the Angels proves to be a Georgian Pygmalion with just a touch of Educating Rita. A tale of a wiser, older mentor, Handel, and a disgraced woman, Susannah Cibber, both trying to reclaim their lives. He her passionate singing teacher with a failed opera behind him, she his willing if frustrated pupil with a failed marriage. As they work towards getting ready for Messiah's opening night, themes of redemption and resurrection loom large. And even though you know it's opening proved a crowning success, All the Angels is so convincingly crafted you despair things might not go to plan.
Ross Gaynor and Rebecca O'Mara in All the Angels. Image by Pat Redmond
Sumptuous as a Christmas dinner, Drake's script addresses questions around the how and why of art, around hardened hearts and elevated hopes, around love and friendship, about the transcendence of music and the immanence of the divine, even in dirt filled streets and fallen souls. Speaking always to surviving, then slowly thriving along the hard path towards a second chance. To the large and small triumphs of the human spirit. To deaths and resurrections in this life and the next. Beautifully realised under Lynne Parker's masterful direction.
From the entrance of musical director Helene Montague, to a fizzle of modernity in technical attire, Parker's attention to detail is impeccable. Echoed in Sarah Jane Shiels' set and lighting, its clever use of mirrors a visual master stroke, and in Sorcha Ni Fhloinn's eye catching costumes. Ross Gaynor, showing impressive range as a host of supporting characters, turns in a welter of terrific performances. Matched by a perfectly pitched Brian Doherty as Handel, patrolling the stage like a kinder hearted Henry Higgins prone to moody outbursts. A remarkable Rebecca O'Mara as his student singer, Susannah Cibber, speaks to a confidence so diminished she's almost afraid to hope. Doherty and O'Mara crackling with chemistry as palpable as a perfectly sung duet, being an absolute joy to behold.
Ross Scanlon in All the Angels. Image Pat Redmond
If singing never overpowers text, it's not without its issues, even if some arise from brave choices and others from unfortunate circumstances. Such as baritone Owen Gilhooly-Miles needing to withdraw from Tuesday's performance. If tenor Ross Scanlon bravely undertook both duties, the texture of a baritone was missed. O'Mara may downplay her vocal prowess for long periods, yet when she finds it, heartfelt and captivating as it is, she bravely leans towards sentiment rather than sentimentality, towards tenderness rather than power at the cost of a little oomph. Young soprano, Megan O'Neill, rounding out an impressive cast, delivers a controlled, unobtrusive performance that is utterly beguiling, her impressive voice and presence announcing 'watch this space.'
Like the fiascoes leading to the opening night of Messiah, Rough Magic have endured their own fiascoes on the way to the opening of All the Angels. Following the bane of COVID making for insane working conditions, inconstant messages from Government risk unfairly robbing many productions of much of their potential audience. Add to that your baritone's last minute withdrawal and it has to feel like one kick in the teeth too many. Yet like Handel and Mrs Cribber, Rough Magic are made of sterner stuff. Like Messiah, it might have been a hellish journey getting there, but All the Angels delivers in the end. An indulgence utterly memorable, hugely enjoyable and that little bit joyous. Lovers of a good night at the theatre, rejoice. Christmas has come early this year.
All the Angels (Handel and the First Messiah) by Nick Drake, presented by Smock Alley and Rough Magic Theatre, runs at Smock Alley Theatre until December 22.