‘The Shadow of a Gunman’ review

Lyric Theatre

3 May- 6 June 2015

Scarcely have I been in a theatre where the audience was as enthusiastic as they were during this joint Abbey-Lyric production of ‘Shadow of a Gunman’. Without anything ever descending into rowdiness or misbehaviour, the atmosphere among the crowd was electric, from frequent, raucous laughter at jokes, to lively cheers at one-liners, to keen applause at musical outbursts- if the response is this colourful throughout the whole run, I can’t imagine the cast and crew could be any happier.

As resonant now as it ever was, with politics in Ireland unfortunately still a contentious issue, Sean O’ Casey’s ‘Shadow of a Gunman’ sees poet Donal Davoren holed up in a Dublin tenement during the War of Independence, utterly unconcerned with politics, but finding himself mistaken for an IRA man by various residents of the building nonetheless, not least by young Minnie Powell, whom he develops a flirtation with, and subsequently allows to believe the lie. But his deception goes on to catch up with him in horrifying fashion.

There’s an extraordinary sense of scale in this production, the sheer size of the stage allowing for a truly vast set to represent Davoren and Shields’ apartment. On the one hand it is a very sparse affair, Donal spending most of his time at a writing desk and Seumus in bed, indicative of the poverty of the men’s situation. Yet it is also bestowed with numerous great touches, including the outside yard visible through the windows, complete with washing, as well as a huge model of the moon in the second half. There are no colourful flourishes or trickery in this play, and yet the action on stage has the sense of the epic- the sparseness somehow lending itself to the grand. As a study of the Dublin poor in the midst of war, the world of the play hits home precisely by presenting itself as somewhere we, the audience, would really not want to live.

It is, however, a compelling world to watch. Nearly all of the performers onstage bring something fascinating to the play, any that don’t only because they never really get the chance to make their mark. Mark O’ Halloran, as Donal, is a great anchor, never off the stage, the necessary centre of the whole story. He is, however, more enjoyable to watch in his interactions with others than in his musings to himself, much more interesting as the borderline charlatan romancing Minnie, or the coward skulking in his apartment while others pay for his deceit, than as the tortured poet indulging in laments- the latter is one of the few elements of the play that gradually begins to grate. Amy McAllister, as the young neighbour buying into his lies, is superb, a mischievous sprite half-dancing across the stage, constantly wearing an infectious smile, and her mannerisms such that, in my showing, you could positively sense the audience warming to her more and more the longer she was on stage. David Ganly is good fun as Shields, afforded probably the most physical comedy of the show, from hoisting up his fallen breeches to flopping about his bed reluctant to leave it. Louise Lewis is affecting as Mrs Grigson, terrorised by the Black and Tan raid at play’s end and bullied by her bible-thumping husband who, guiltily, we can’t help but like, as Dan Gordon plays Adolphus with absolute aplomb, marching about the stage half-drunk and treating us to a highly enjoyable musical number that seems to go on, and on, and on without us ever wanting it to stop. Catherine Walsh comes a close second as the most enjoyably eccentric performer of the play in her role as Mrs Henderson, eclipsing everyone else around her in her substantial, but sadly single, scene on stage, tormenting Mr Gallagher as he brings Donal an IRA letter for input, and enunciating his name almost to the point of farce. Similarly, Gerard Byrne and Muirus Crowley are greatly entertaining in their short roles as livid landlord Mr Mulligan and Shields’ business partner Mr Maguire respectively, and I was disappointed to only have a few moments of Crowley in particular, who brings a fascinating, but all too brief, wild energy to Maguire. Lloyd Cooney is fun for a time as Tommy Owens (his own moment of song getting some of the biggest cheers from the audience), but, for me, suffers on account of his limited stage time. This is true of all the actors who only appear in substantial roles in the first half (with the exception of Walsh), as the drama becomes so focused and intimate in the latter half that it’s easy to forget the contributions early on. For me, the worst casualty is Malcolm Adams as Mr Gallagher, his timid take wholly overshadowed by Walsh’s enjoyably shrill Mrs Henderson. By contrast, Jamie O’ Neill, present only in the second half as an auxiliary, delivers a frightening, thrilling turn, leaving us in no doubt he’ll shoot if driven to, and, for anyone not familiar with the play already, leaving us genuinely fearful for each character he directs his weapon at, with poor Shields, especially, subjected to a terrifying moment.

Wayne Jordan’s direction is every bit as worthy of praise as the acting, small moments like Donal folding himself within one of the apartment curtains in the dead of night juxtaposed beautifully with Adolphus’ thundering about the stage setting the world to rights, and the manic scramble to conceal evidence that leaves the whole set in disarray with papers and blankets towards the end. The rumble of car engines as the Black and Tans pull up outside, along with furious knocks and searching lights, are as good as anything at the climax of a movie thriller, and the final body language of the two central performers, diminished to truly tiny men as someone else pays the price for their cowardice, leaves the play lingering long in the mind.

Little needs to be said of the quality of O’ Casey’s writing. The play remains a classic, and sadly, but powerfully, continues to speak strongly to modern Irish audiences, offering a more overtly tense, violent representation of the strife we now at least have the luxury of rolling our eyes at, but very unlikely to ever become irrelevant. See this production for the impressive acting and great direction, and, if most showings are like mine, a guaranteed fantastic atmosphere inside the theatre.

Script*****
Performances****
Production*****

Christopher Moore.

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