Playboy of the Western World: The Musical – Town Hall Theatre, Galway
Creator: Adapted from the J.M Synge play by Diarmaid de Faoite and Justin McCarthy
Music: Justin McCarthy
Reviewer: Sarah O’Toole
Originally recorded as a radio drama for RTE, Diarmaid de Faoite and Justin McCarthy’s ebullient musical adaption of Synge’s classic takes on an even greater lease of life in this live theatrical staging of the radio recording. The added artistic frame of setting it in 1959 provides rich context for both character and musical choices, and also allows the production to mischievously send up representations of Irishness deriving from the original that were later served up for international consumption in the twentieth century.
The frame also complicates the layers of performance on the stage in very playful way – while the performers are away from their mikes, they are clearly not their characters, but neither do we see them as themselves. Rather, we see a bright and chirpy troupe of highly professional radio performers from the late 50s who drink tea out of tea-sets in the background and enthusiastically help the foley artist, Muireann O’Raghallaigh create sound effects through all kinds of highly entertaining analogue means while dancing to Justin McCarthy’s fantastic soundtrack which reimagines all shades and flavours to that era’s popular music.
This distancing effect, and the live creation of sound, allows for great comedy. The simple action of a character walking into a bar becomes a moment of sidesplitting hilarity. The cast are freed to really play up the sexual innuendo which adds a great deal to the relationship between Pegeen and Christy, and through this they subvert the religious puritanism of 50s Ireland and acknowledge the influence of American popular culture. Rod Goodall’s captivating voiceover draws us in and sets the tone and provides gentle commentary as well as a very eloquent coda to Pegeen’s famous last line: “Pegeen no longer sang the blues, Pegeen was the blues”
Grace Kiely is a pitch-perfect Pegeen Mike, (pun intended) who nevertheless manages to bring the degree of pathos and devastation necessary to the conclusion of Pegeen’s journey without jarring the triumphant upbeat energy of the end of the performance. Helen Gregg’s Widow Quin fares particularly well from the recontextualisation, backed up by a loud dirty guitar sound which allows her to bring out the Widow’s raw, dangerous sexuality through a powerful vocal performance. The renegotiation of the relationship between Christy, played by Eoghan Burke and his father, played by Seamus Hughes, is particularly powerful, showing his adventures in the Mayo community as a rite of passage into a masculine order which had been heretofore denied him. Diarmaid de Faoite’s Seaneen Keogh is pure comedy gold, particularly in his deployment of the kazoo; Fred McCluskey as Pegeen’s drunken father shines in an Elvis-inspired vocal performance; and Eilis McCarthy, as one of Christy’s local groupies, plays a key role in the creation of Christy as Playboy. A surprise guest star in the shape of John Conneely, adds to the “golden years of radio” atmosphere, as well as treating us to his fabulous voice, accompanied by the rest of the cast (who have pretty impressive voices themselves!) and a live band whose talents gave the performance the energy of a really rocking music gig.
From the very start of the performance, O’Raghallaigh has us implicated in the creation of the piece by casting us in the role of a live studio audience who are there to respond to “applause” cues when appropriate. However, a highly enthusiastic audience needed little incitement to applaud and got to their feet to join in with a rousing finale. I sincerely hope this is not the last we see of this version of “Playboy”. I would love to see this brave company share this production with the rest of the country in a national tour and showcase the amazing talent we have here in Galway.
Playboy of the western world was performed at the Town Hall Theatre Galway for 5 nights Tuesday 8th of November to Saturday 12th.