Dubliners. Image Jeda De Bri
It begins with a funeral procession. A lone priest and four pallbearers carry a suggestion of a coffin across the stage. Likely containing the corpse of your Joycean and theatrical expectations. A cobbled together affair, Corn Exchange's latest Dubliners looks, sounds and feels like a student production. Looking like it owes more to Annie Ryan's version for The Lir in 2018, rather than Corn Exchange's original production for Dublin Theatre Festival in 2012.
Taking almost two and a half hours to tell eight tales from James Joyces's collection of short stories, Dubliners (1914), framing, initially, shifts from Joyce's timeline to today. A pretence handled in a ham-fisted manner which, wisely, is later abandoned. Sarah Bacon's set might highlight Christopher Walk Ins with an 80s derelict twist, but it competes with Joyce's tales more than it compliments or modernises. If the aim was to show similarities between Joyce's characters and Dubliners today, it's not always successful. Due, primarily, to Michael West and Annie Ryan's exposition heavy adaptation, which contains too many outdated verbal and thematic mines. And for being always on the look out for the next unsubtle laugh.
Dubliners. Image Jeda De Bri
Granted, Joyce had a wicked sense of humour, but stories like The Encounter, an unsettling tale of two boys meeting a paedophile, plays like a Father Ted scene or a Benny Hill sketch. The Two Gallants might try suggest a walk through modern Dublin, but it, like several others, trips over itself by constantly talking in terms and ideas (taking the Pledge, shillings) which stick out like nostalgic sore thumbs. Meanwhile, much of the heart of stories like The Boarding House or Counterparts feels cut out, reduced to obvious laughs. The polish you've come to expect from Corn Exchange not always in evidence. The Dead, arguably Joyce's best loved tale, is snipped to the point of irrelevance.
Despite Dubliners being too much swagger and not enough soul, an invested cast, many recent graduates, set the stage on fire with their enthusiasm and save the show. If some are consistently excellent, each shines at different moments, often switching between narrator, character and stage hand in the same scene. Gabriel Adewusi, Fiona Browne, Tim Creed, Cillian Lenaghan, Emma Reid, Sadhbh Malin, Leah Minto and Alex Murphy give it their all, showing impressive range, and are well worth the price of admission. You'll laugh, not much else perhaps, even as some tales try wedge a little pathos in at the end. Though there are moments, like in A Painful Case, which prove emotionally affecting. Reminding you that Annie Ryan and Corn Exchange, on their day, are up there with the very best.
Dubliners by James Joyce, adapted by Annie Ryan and Michael West, presented by Corn Exchange and Smock Alley Theatre, runs at Smock Alley Theatre until June 24.
For more information visit Smock Alley Theatre