The Risen People at the Abbey Theatre

January 10, 2014


Like the desperate characters at the heart of this tale of tenement life, the Abbey Theatre have started to drop their artistic integrity off at the pawn shop each Christmas in hopes of reclaiming it later when the coffers role in. After joining the hoards fetishising Joyce last year with their toasty mounting of The Dead, it’s the Lock Out that’s slipping on the garter in 2013. Using its centenary as an excuse they have staged the theatrical petri dish of the defining work of fiction on that period- Strumpet City.

Working with an antiquated text, Jimmy Fay has festooned this production with a mixture of ragtime tunes and bittersweet harmonies, of both new and reimagined songs, diverting our attention from the Plough-lite story, resulting in an entertaining, dare I say inventive first half.

But then it looses it’s balls and instead of using the opportunity to satirise the accepted truths we’ve been force fed from the tit of De Valera, it continues to suck on the same stodgy sap that fuels our nations little man syndrome. When it tries to suddenly follow a wholly emotional trajectory in the second act it becomes a bore.

O’Casey is the obvious influence on Plunkett’s story which follows the reversing fortunes of the tenants as the lockout drags on, while Fay’s production works from the Brecht leaning 70s show staged by Jim Sheridan. But perhaps a more exciting reference point is the musical Cabaret. Both use the revue format to explore the death of one political epoch and the rise of another. The increasing brutal totalitarianism, the thugish pig ignorance and the cruelty of the populace is satirised in both as Berlin is roused by the Nazis and Dublin by unwavering Larkinism and Catholicism.

Unfortunately, while Cabaret holds the German people accountable for their actions, The Risen People romanticises poor, downtrodden Paddy until he’s a hackneyed cliche.

Linehan’s first act compositions are a sly thrill(when they can be heard), taking an almost incendiary swipe at well picked national scabs. Musicals, more than any other form, are written with audience reactions in mind. But Fay doesn’t seem to know what he wants to convey to his. He switches tack often so we can’t be sure who his performers are singing to or how what they are speaking of affects them.

There are typically excellent turns from both Charlotte McCurry and Hilda Fay as the wives of a locked out foreman and scab respectively, while Phelim Drew and Joe Hanley are enlisted to play what they play so well, woe begotten wasters. The Abbey have one of the best ensembles seen all year on stage who sing, play real and improvised instruments and indulge in interpretive dance, delivering stock characters with gusto so the naturalistic scenes between Conor Linehan’s compositions don’t wane as much as such stale agitprop normally would.

But the Abbey haven’t invested in their concept. At all. The song, dance and movement are just baubles from a show shedding focus like pine needles. They’re decorative rather than exploratory, furthering the plot but not our understanding of the characters, not challenging our preconceptions or giving us any true understanding a time when our city was a melting pot of individuals and ideologies.

The lack of cohesion in what story is being told means it all falls away and the whole charade becomes as gimmicky as the skates in Starlight Express.

Like a Buzz Feed pictorial it runs down the events of the Lock Out in a series of inventive ways- most enjoyably Neil O Driscoll’s video design. But little thought has been put into how this reflects on the now, reducing it to a pageant piece.

Even less thought has been put into what it was to live then. These people were inflamed but they were also starving, they were proud but also breaking apart. This was the forerunner to the Rising, it’s shadowed in history by the First World War and the skid mark of Church control on our virgin state. None of this is felt in possibly the most wasted opportunity on stage this year.

Containing about as much bite as a defective music box, it croaks out the same century old tune.

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