Garrett Lombard and Naoise Dunbar in The Cavalcaders. Image by Emilija Jefremova.
Perceptions can sharpen radically over thirty years. Take Billy Roche's The Cavalcaders from 1993, set in a shoe shop in Wexford in the distant, and not so distant past. Marrying myth and reality with an Arthurian twist, enmeshed with pagan and Christian themes, the latter very much in evidence, The Cavalcaders proves less Jospeh Campbell's Hero of a Thousand Faces so much as the myth of the small town male. A legend in his own mind who never undertook any heroic journey, never fought or won any real battles, ran from the dragons of emotion, then mythologised his wounds along with the rest of the lads. Just like Terry, a beta-male trying to prove he's an alpha. In truth a cuckolded baritone, overcompensating by becoming a ladies man. One who will never let a woman break his heart again. Guilty for all the things he did, and shamed by all those he didn't.
Amelia Crowley in The Cavalcaders. Image by Emilija Jefremova.
Narratively, Roche's thin story is more a device to facilitate a trip down memory lane in which every man is at war with himself. Which, structurally, Roche handles superbly, even allowing for the odd confusing moment. Cobbler Terry, in the process of selling his shoe shop to a former employee, Rory, is having a wistful, last look round. If the past amounts to a box of untidy trinkets, Rory's modern upgrades prove history repeats itself. Men continuing to pretend their assigned roles are the natural state of affairs. The old tropes of warrior, lover, wiseman, king writ large. When in truth men look like fools playing at being gods, too childish to be grown up and too childlike to face their wounds. The women, too, subscribe to their classically determined gender cosplay. Beautiful Bundorans assigned as maternal, virginal, madwoman, wise witch. Good girls who do bad things and femme fatales who turn good men into bad men, sending them to their doom. Throw in a barbershop quartet and plenty of male posturing, wherein everything is said when nothing is said and words are used to fill up male silence, and you pretty much have it covered.
Eilish McLaughlin in The Cavalcaders. Image by Emilija Jefremova.
Roche's story of The Cavalcaders, the greatest band that never was, and their adoring groupies, is replete with lovely liars, marvellously capturing the dynamics of small town life. Often a kingdom of the blind where the one eyed man is king. Where you take what, or who, you can get. Where the only thing men are interested in is the imagined approval of other men. Their values passed off as normalcy, even as women challenge them head on. Values which lend The Cavalcaders a dated quality, reinforced by the barbershop quartet device. Four Max Bygraves' trying to pass themselves off as Mick Jaggers proves a tall order. The singing getting A+ for effort even as the A&R men won't be banging down Druid's door (in fairness, a key member was missing). Yet the laughter and heart which director Aaron Monaghan evokes, along with smooth transitions between memory and the present, has a muscular, musical quality. Making Roche's fools deeply likeable.
Tiernan Messitt-Greene and Naoise Dunbar in The Cavalcaders. Image by Emilija Jefremova.
If The Cavalcaders is a man’s world, it's a woman who steals the show. Amelia Crowley is magnificent as Breda, who's been there, done that, but has too much cop on and won't settle for being second best. Crowley lighting up the stage every time she enters, and leaving it a little hollow each time she leaves. Her exhausted tone and girlish exuberance evoking the unseen town beyond Ciaran Bagnall's moody set, lit one moment in a glow of nostalgia, the next in the mustiness of time. But back to Crowley, for whom each scene is a masterclass, especially with Garrett Lombard as Terry, both heartbreakingly brilliant together. If Éilish McLaughlin plays young Nuala as a stroppy Ophelia, looking here but not here, present yet separate, she articulates details which suggest an actress with serious promise. Yet Monaghan has clearly put the reins on his cast. Even as Lombard's Terry slips his frequently and is all the better for it. Lombard owning the stage with irresistible magnetism, driving his scenes with McLaughlin, who holds her ground, and creating moments of magic with Crowley. Tiernan Messitt-Greene's strong silent Ted, despite not having too much to do, does it splendidly when called on. As does an invested and impressive Naoise Dunbar as the trying too hard Rory, another serious talent to watch out for. Director Aaron Monaghan, stepping in last moment for Sean Kearn's Josie (hazard a guess why), proves less a problem so much as a privilege. Book in hand, Monaghan slips right in, giving a comically rich yet sensitive portrayal which, if the needed readjustment unsettled the cast, it was impossible to tell. Aside from singing that is, though Monaghan makes a decent fist of it
Garrett Lombard and Amelia Crowley in The Cavalcaders. Image by Emilija Jefremova.
In The Cavalcaders, Roche explores a world in which men are boys thinking themselves kings. And thinking it all normal. His Wexford a place where the universe is balanced by an eye for an eye. The sacrificial lamb paying the price for someone elses sin. If it's a version of Christianity, it's one without salvation or redemption. But Roche's Wexford is also a transitional world. Shifting from the past into the future, where commerce not community rules and where men are left wondering what happened? Hinting at a richness in flawed fellowship that got lost along the way. If The Cavalcaders doesn't quite find it again, adrift amidst the heavy nostalgia, it frequently points in the right direction.
The Cavalcaders by Billy Roche, presented by Druid Theatre Company, concludes it national tour at The Pavillon, running until July 2.