The Colleen Bawn – Lyric Theatre – Review
Until 28 April, 2018
Dion Boucicault’s 1860 play The Colleen Bawn turned stage-Irishness into a popular contemporary art-form, much to the displeasure of the literary community at the time. Featuring murder, mistaken identity, hidden passion and pantomime villains, this bawdy and irreverent depiction of small town Irish life actually had a true story at its core. Boucicault took the real life drowning of a peasant girl by her fiancée in County Clare as his starting point, but ditched the tragedy for a much more upbeat ending.
Land-owner Hardress Cregan (Cavan Clarke) and his mother (Jo Donnelly) are about to lose their home to the wily Mr Corrigan (Edna Kilroy), but if he marries his cousin, the wealthy Anne Shute (Colette Lennon Dougal) all his problems will be solved. The situation is complicated however by his secret wife Eily (Maeve Smyth – the Colleen Bawn of the title); by Anne Shute’s love for Hardress’s best friend and by the machinations of Hardress’s servant Danny Mann (Patrick McBrearty) who promises Hardress a way to be free of his troublesome wife. Presiding over the action is the feckless smuggler Myles-Ma-Coppaleen (Bryan Quinn), the unwitting lynch-pin to the entire plot.
Played out in Grace Smart’s tight, effective set, the production melds farce, live music (ably performed by the cast) and physical comedy to great effect. While it may be a little confusing in the opening scenes, the melodramatic tone of The Colleen Bawn is perfectly suited to Bruiser’s high-octane physical style and the cast are clearly relishing the linguistic challenge of the rural dialect. The drowning scene is effectively portrayed with sheets of material and some sound effects, while Anne Shute’s horse ride through a forest highlights the moments of pure theatrical magic that director Lisa May can create with sheer ingenuity and imagination.
The ensemble is a strong one, with all actors playing multiple roles and remaining on stage for most of the action. They display an enjoyably light touch and perfect comic timing, particularly Enda Kilroy, delighting in his role as stage villain. Colette Lennon Dougal invests Anne Shute with an almost modern day sense of independence while Patrick McBrearty’s groveling Danny Mann, perfectly embodies that twisted sense of loyalty between the Anglo-Irish landowners and their peasantry.
In this co-production with the Lyric Theatre, Lisa May wisely just hints at the serious economic and political issues at the heart of The Colleen Bawn rather than exploring them. She allows her company to do what they do best and that is to entertain. The joy in what theatre can do, which is inherent in all Bruiser’s productions, is here in spades.
It results in their most successful production to date, celebrated by the sheer exuberance and inventiveness of this fine ensemble who appear to be having as much of a ball as the audience watching them.