Jimmy’s Hall – Abbey Theatre – Review by Frank L.
Adapted from Paul Laverty’s film script by Graham McClaren
Review is from 22 July 2017 in Carrick-On-Shannon in Leitrim – The Sports Complex of Carrick-On-Shannon Community School
Abbey Theatre – From Saturday, 29 July 2017 – To Saturday, 19 August 2017
Photography: Ros Kavanagh
The Abbey Theatre chose the Carrick-on-Shannon Community School as the venue to premier this new play, an adaptation of the Ken Loach film of the same title. The School is geographically close to the events which it portrays that occurred in 1932 and 1933. Jimmy Gralton is the hero. He was born in 1885. He emigrated to the United States, and returned just before the outbreak of the civil war, only to leave again. In 1932, following the death of his brother and the election of Eamon de Valera as President of the Executive Council, he returned to Leitrim once more in the belief that de Valera and his new government would usher in more progressive social policies.
Gralton, during his stay in 1922, had been the driving force in building a community hall on a part of his family’s small subsistence farm. It was used as a place for education and recreation including dancing for the benefit of the young who through poverty and lack of opportunity had little to uplift their spirits. In those bleak years, dancing, unless supervised by clerics, was considered a licentious and socially dangerous activity. However Gralton, who had lived in the States, wanted to carry on these activities without interference from the Church. The story tells what happened to him with his recalcitrant views which included a reverence for James Connolly’s writings.
The set is the interior of Jimmy’s hall with its corrugated iron roof, rudimentary rectangular windows and doors. It is basic. But it is a place of joy. As the audience assembles the cast are on stage playing a variety of instruments, including electric guitars, singing various songs which post-date the nineteen thirties; Whitney Houston and the Pogues to name but a few. What this merriment makes clear is that this is a place where young people can have fun and express themselves as they want.
The play proper begins with a soliloquy from Jimmy (Richard Clements) on his return from America. Gradually there arrives on stage friends of old and their hopes of revitalising the now defunct hall. McClaren directs the cast in a series of energetic dance routines and songs. It is all joyous and Jimmy’s delighted old mother, Alice (Brid ni Neachtain) is a major participator in the merriment. But the atmosphere deteriorates with the arrival of Father Sheridan (Bosco Hogan) and his lay blue-shirt, side-kick O’Keefe (Donal O’Kelly). The battle lines are drawn between a deferential, authoritarian, confessional state and a more liberal, progressive one. McClaren uses to telling effect original footage of the Eucharistic Congress 1932 in Dublin which shows in uncompromising terms where the loyalties of the State lay. Together with contemporaneous government statements and the terms of various enactments, the play demonstrates clearly how the odds were stacked against Gralton.
Given the rudimentary nature of the theatrical facilities in the Community School, McClaren was brave with pyrotechnic skill to simulate fire on stage and the scene worked dramatically. It was no mean feat. A greater difficulty with the auditorium was the lack of any “wings” for the actors to enter and leave the stage, however the entire cast did not let this deficit hinder them unduly. While the script worked well for the most part, there was an awkward device which was used to enable Jimmy and his former “flame” but now married Oonagh (Lisa Lambe) to have some time alone together. In its defence, the device did allow the two of them to show where their true feelings for each other lay.
In Loach’s film, considerable emphasis was laid on the corrupting dangers of jazz music on the moral purity of the young people of Ireland. In this adaptation, the role of alien jazz music is less prominent but still present. More tunes with an uncompromising jazz origin would have underlined more clearly the establishment’s irrational fear of foreign influences. However these reservations are minor in what was a well-constructed and lively production.
The artistic directors of the Abbey Theatre made an enlightened decision to premier this play close to its physical origins. It is to be hoped that premiering a play in an unusual but appropriate venue will become a new bench mark for the Abbey. The Abbey is the National Theatre of Ireland, premiering Jimmy’s Hall in Carrick on Shannon emphasised that fact.
The production is quite different from the film, and focuses on the merriment that took place in the hall, alongside the political aspects. These two areas are not natural bedfellows and do not lie easily together. The music, singing and dance routines seem to be used to show the simple fun of the dance hall, and in that respect it is hard to find fault. The production of Jimmy’s Hall is filled with youthful energy. Sadly, at the time, older individuals held all the power and they did not share Jimmy’s view of life. The mistakes that were made in the years following independence in 1922 must not be brushed under the proverbial carpet as if they had never happened. Jimmy’s Hall, in a joyous manner, takes a valuable look at the detritus of moral values which lay dormant under one such carpet. It is an enlightened way to tell a shameful story but it is a story well worth the telling.
Catherine Bell – Ensemble
Richard Clements – Jimmy
Craig Connolly – Brendan
Muiris Crowley – Sean
Aindrias De Staic – Doherty
Alan Devally – Mossie
Donal O’Kelly – O’Keefe
Bosco Hogan – Fr Sheridan
Lisa Lambe – Oonagh
Sarah Madigan – Marie
Ruth McGill – Tess
Diarmaid Murtagh – Tommy Gilroy
Bríd Ní Neachtain – Alice
Ben Delaney – Sound Designer
Vicki Manderson – Movement Director
Michael John McCarthy – Musical Director
Graham McLaren – Director
Pam McQueen – Dramaturg
Colin Richmond – Set & Costume Designer
Sarah Jane Shiels – Lighting Designer