Niamh McGrath and Colin Campbell in Tarry Flynn. Image uncredited
On paper it sounds like a sure thing. Conall Morrison's 1997 adaptation of Tarry Flynn by Patrick Kavanagh, directed by Aaron Monaghan, with a stellar cast to die for. But two out of three ain't good enough. The stellar cast being the exception, served poorly by both Monaghan's direction and Morrison's lumbering script. To say Morrison's adaptation is past its best before date would be a generous understatement. His take on growing up in rural Cavan in the 1930s lacking the intensity of Kavanagh's novel. Morrison's Tarry looking like an extra in his own play, second to his community. Who look like extras from Halls Pictorial Weekly. Similarly when it comes to the artist living, loving, and lusting in a rural community. "We love most what makes us miserable." Speak for yourself. If that's true this production is going to go down as a classic.
Tarry Flynn. Image uncredited
Allowing that Kavanagh's 1948 novel was already a structural mess, like a half finished Jenga tower, Morrison's adaptation serves only to make it more unstable over time. Which Monaghan struggles to negotiate. "You can’t get feathers from a frog." True. But you can't put them on a frog either. Not that that stops Monaghan from trying in an attempt to cement it all together with humour and physicality, even as neither proves up to the task. Playing it safe by playing to his strengths, Monaghan mines Morrison's script for all its physical comedy. Where there isn't humour Monaghan plasters it on anyway by way of a clever, often slapstick theatricality. Making genuinely funny moments, like the mating bull sequence, hilariously successful while others, like the crucifixion, or saying goodbye, landing lifeless in contrast. And there's an awful lot of contrast that gets manhandled by humour. Turning characters into caricatures, and not in a Commedia or clowning way. Raising a weak chuckle or two occassionally, and little else. For this frog needed to be kissed, feathers proving not so great a look.
Matthew Malone in Tarry Flynn. Image uncredited
Firmly entrenched in the Our Town tradition of meta-theatricality, costumes and props sit either side of the stage, while the poles of Naomi Faughan's superb, circular set are self-consciously manipulated. Monaghan managing the many moving parts magnificently. Yet the end result still looks like a student production whose theatrical ingenuity is not always ingenious enough. Probably for needing to find over two and a half hours of it. Yet when it's good, it's very very good indeed. Revealing that Monaghan has a clear gift for the micro, even as he's less successful with the macro, the cohesion that binds it all together. The whole feeling like a cyle of loosely related vignettes about a community of rednecks and rogues. Many looking like extras from The Dukes of Hazzard strolling through 1930s Cavan. Helen Foy's costumes looking like they're having a dizzy spell. The whole coming together in a physical fireworks display that's visually fascinating for the first five minutes. But the novelty soon wears off. Leaving you wondering when's the next colourful, sparkly explosion coming?
Seamus O'Rourke and Niamh McGrath in Tarry Flynn. Image uncredited
Thankfully there's quite a few, though not enough to sustain the running time. In a cast of award winners, should be award winners, and will be award winners, Monaghan has assembled a first class ensemble, most taking on several roles. And who clearly trust their director implicitly, benefitting from Monaghan's passion for physical theatre. Colin Campbell, Niamh McGrath, Alexandra Conlon, Sarah Madigan, Aisling O'Mara, Bryan Burroughs, Manus Halligan, Matthew Malone and Seamus O’Rourke restore to proceedings some of the pathos and subtlety that's too often underplayed or overplayed. Niamh McGrath's Mrs Flynn might channel Mrs Doyle on speed, but she's an Irish mother none the less. Colin Campbell's Tarry might wax lyrical about his gift and looks, but it’s made clear why the tide wouldn't take him out. Every cast member having moments that catch you. Seamus O'Rourke in drag being one you'll never be able to scorch from your memory. Aisling O'Mara, stepping in as a replacement late in the day, giving a performance you'll never want to.
Tarry Flynn. Image uncredited
Like a plundered gold mine, Morrison's Tarry Flynn still has a few nuggets here and there, but its rich seam is long gone. Its animal impressions, Cotton Eyed Joe music and a mysterious Uncle magically appearing not so much innovations as get out of jail cards. If its tale of the loves and lusts of an aspiring artist echo themes in Hugh Leonard's Da, there's little of Leonard's pathos, and less of his charm in evidence. Indeed, by the end, as Campbell begins to recite some of Kavanagh's sublime poetry, your as apt to be thinking, "please, someone, make him stop talking," as you are to be mesmerised by Kavanagh's verse. Likely grateful, in either case, that it signals the end. And if you're like the lady next to me who fell asleep for most of it, jump up for a standing ovation and applaud vigourously. Maybe nobody noticed.
Tarry Flynn by Patrick Kavanagh, adapted for the stage by Conall Morrison, directed by Aaron Monaghan, presented by Nomad Theatre Network in association with Livin' Dred Theatre Company is currently on tour.
For more information visit Livin' Dred