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A CurtainUp London London Review

They might take you for a cat, for you always seem to fall upon your legs.
---- Claire
Don Wycherley as Conn The Shaughraun
(Photo: Kip Carroll)
The respectable society of Victorian London may have been the quintessence of moral austerity but its popular theatre was boisterous, sensationalist and spectacular. This revival from The Abbey Theatre Dublin of Dion Boucicault's most famous play The Shaughraunhas all the elements of its original incarnations: a gaudy extravaganza of excitement, merriment and stunning display. The evening begins, for example, with a magician (Joe Daly) emerging from the audience reading a book with flaming pages. Immediately following this is a scene from Irish country life, accompanied by lively music and evolving into an Irish Riverdance-style dance.

In addition to the sumptuous abundance of music, dance and visual pageantry, the plot is a dazzling combination of romantic quandaries, two-dimensional villains and good old-fashioned Irish roguery. Described as a "comic melodrama", the play is both humorous and breathtakingly exciting. The narrative follows the fortunes of escaped Fenian convict Robert Ffolliot (Stephen Darcy), who has returned to his fiancée Arte O'Neill (Emily Nagle) and unmarried sister Claire (Fiona O'Shaughnessy). However, the evil machinations of villain Corry Kinchela (Stephen Brennan) threaten Robert's freedom, betrothal and property. Moreover, the presence of English soldiery stationed to recapture Fenian fugitives further complicates the situation. The plot contains a plethora of features and surprises, including thwarted or entangled love, crimes of acquisitive greed, cliff-top chases, mysterious ships, fights and shooting, a hated police spy and a virtuous priest. The comedy may sometimes seem to undermine the emotional gravity of the various crises facing the heroes, but the evening is pulled off with such rollicking energy that no one could complain.

Much of Boucicault's contemporary popularity relied on his elaborately impressive set designs and this production reproduces a sense of the original scenery which wowed Victorian audiences. Francis O'Connor's design is both intricate and exaggerated, with an overall larger than life feeling. Two arches of rocky cliffs dominate the stage, topped with a silhouette of the Ffolliots' ruined ancestral castle. These revolve to give varying parts of the Irish landscape and interesting textures of the actors' movement throughout the different scenes. In addition to this, detailed centrepieces descend, including a rustic hut, a parlour of a grand house, a prison, a tower gaol cell and a ruined abbey.

The character who holds together the intricate wildness of the evening is Conn the eponymous Shaughraun (Don Wycherley). The name translates as "vagabond", coming from the Irish verb "seachran" meaning to wander or roam. Wycherley's performance conveys just the right balance of Conn's lovable yet dynamic disreputability. Accompanied by his dog Tatters (played with canine charisma by former animal shelter resident Patch), Conn's ingenious escapades display a complete disregard for honesty or sobriety. Nevertheless, his mischievousness is endearing and he is steadfastly and resourcefully loyal to his imperilled friends.

The lovers are engagingly played with sincere emotion amid the farce. Particularly entertaining was the pairing of the sharp-witted Claire Ffolliot and the gentlemanly English Captain Molineux (Rory Keenan). They banter with an extra Anglo-Irish frisson and light-hearted prejudice. The villains, on the other hand, are the embodiment of unadulterated despicability. David Pearse's performance as Kinchela's lackey Harvey Duff has a preposterous physicality and audience loved to loathe him.

John McColgan, also director of the hit Riverdance, skilfully emphasises the play's roots in nineteenth-century theatre, in many ways a relative of the Victorian burlesque. Nevertheless, most people will be surprised that such an amusing evening could be historically accurate. Far from subtle, this production is fun and fantastical and its sprawling exuberance is utterly charming.

Written by Dion Boucicault
Directed by John McColgan

Starring: Don Wycherley
With: Fiona O'Shaughnessy, Anita Reeves, Rory Keenan, Emily Nagle, Stephen Brennan, Frank Grimes, David Pearse, Stephen Darcy, Jasmine Russell, Mal Whyte, Billie Traynor, Ruth McGill, Eric Lacey, Gerry McCann, Peter Daly, Brian Thunder, Barry Flanagan, Joe Daly, Michael Maguire, Darren Maguire, Brian Swanton, Edel Quinn, Karen Halley
Set Designer: Francis O'Connor
Costume Design: Joan O'Clery
Composer: David Downes
Choreographer: Colin Dunne
Lighting: Rupert Murray
Sound: Mick O'Gorman
Running time: Two hours thirty-five minutes with one interval
Box Office: 0870 060 6621
Booking to 24 September 2005
Reviewed by Charlotte Loveridge based on 9th June performance at the Albery, St Martin's Lane London WC2 (Tube: Leicester Square)
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