Parcel From America – Smock Alley – Review
by Fran Winston
Runs until May 15th 7.30pm nightly. Matinee performance 1.30pm Saturday 14th and 3pm Sunday 15th
It’s not often you see the words “Brand New Musical” on a poster. Of all theatre genres, the musical is one of the most expensive to develop and stage. Even stalwarts like Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber have had expensive flops so this obviously acts as something of a deterrent to trying to produce one. So to get a show to the point where it is ready for audiences is quite a feat.
Set in West Limerick in 1950s Ireland this has Irish emigration at its core, as the locals in a small close-knit village fantasise about the amazing lives that their loved ones are living after taking the boat to the land of opportunity. They eagerly await their letters and parcels, which help support them financially, and with Christmas imminent, they are all expecting some wonderful gifts from America.
However, after a young boy Sean, tells a local widow Bridge (Alex Sharpe) that her wayward son will definitely send her something special from the US the village is on tenterhooks. Although he was trying to spare her feelings everyone else realises that no parcel will arrive and they all anxiously await Christmas Eve in the hopes that there will be a Christmas miracle.
The representation of Ireland presented here feels like a romantic American notion of the country. It’s what you’ve seen in a thousand cheesy Hallmark movies and it does feel aimed at an American audience, constantly singing the praises of Uncle Sam while lamenting the wretched poverty-stricken lives of the locals. It feels Oirish rather than Irish!
The songs are inspired by traditional Irish music and there are five brilliant live musicians on stage. The melodies will all sound familiar even though they are new songs and they sound far older than they are. Some of the cast have stronger vocal chops than others, and the solo offerings can be a bit hit and miss (although there seemed to be a couple of sound issues with the music drowning out the vocals at points on the night I attended so this may have affected my perception). Unfortunately, there is no big stand out song that is a prerequisite of the musicals that enjoy longevity. Think of any well-known musical and even if you’ve never seen it you will know the signature track.
The cast is impressive, and they attack the material with gusto, and although Smock Alley is an unusual space to stage a musical it works. The staging is incredibly sparse – there is a stove setting in the “family home” space but other than that, it is just a table, stools and some benches that are utilised to great effect. But the fact that much of this play is set at Christmas makes it feel a bit displaced at this time of year. I could see it being lovely, uplifting festive fare, but it felt a bit odd to be watching it in May.
It’s a tremendous accomplishment to get a musical this far but I do feel it needs a bit more work. It is extremely sentimental and romanticised and at times feels quite schmaltzy. The music will have you tapping your toes but you won’t be humming it for days afterwards. And the morality heavy ending feels a bit in your face. This is entertaining but not outstanding. However, I do think it could have a life as a festive favourite or as a touring production in America. I’ll be interested to see how it develops from here.