A.I.M.S. Adjudication - Michael Collins

ADJUDICATOR:  Damien Murray

DATE OF ATTENDANCE:  Friday 11 April 2014

Well ahead of its opening, the posters for this show said it all by publicly and proudly stating: ‘Michael Collins – Sold Out’.  While that quotation may, perhaps, be a political statement for some, in this case, it was a definite confirmation of commercial success … and if ever a production deserved such support, it was this one.

This musical slice of Irish history by the late Bryan Flynn, with its almost sung-through format, was epic in both content and staging and everyone involved here deserves the highest praise for producing one of the most riveting nights of theatre that I have witnessed in a long time.

Billed as a ‘musical drama’, this production, directed so superbly and meticulously by Christine Scarry, was an even mix of both music and drama in equal turns.

Indeed, when Bryan Flynn watched this production only weeks before his most untimely death, he must have been a very proud man because it is obvious that not only is this a home-grown masterpiece of musical theatre, but also because his peers in a company so close to his native home were able to bring his work so vividly to life.

I cannot praise this well-paced, slick and seamless production enough as there was not a weak link in it.

The key to its success was the amazing team work and high degree of integration, even down to a style of integration within the set (i.e. the hidden smoke machines, the ship’s gangway being concealed within the walls and the car seat that metamorphosed into a coffin for Collins).

The fact that this was an amazing period piece of Irish history … and there was not a single Dublin tenement house in sight sums up the inventiveness and originality of John O’Donoghue’s Set Design.

The dark brick-work set wrapped around the walls of the proscenium arch with iconic imagery of the period, including photographs, an Abbey Theatre bill poster and a representation of the Proclamation.

With entrances and stone upstage steps at the sides and a central upstage door, this was a totally functional open box-set.

It also boasted an inventive second centrally-positioned stage platform (for the play within a play) with sliding doors, which were used for projections, usually newspaper headlines.

Combining with the lighting and smoke, this was a visually atmospheric design, which greatly added to the success and to the pace of the production.

Although there was lots of fragmentation within the gritty story and amongst the characters, the full integration of all parts of this production offered its audience a single experience that was total theatre at its best.

Director, Christine Scarry, her team and the entire company brought so many highlights to this production, including the atmospheric opening with its busy stage activity during the Prologue with smoke and three dancers who were joined by the ensemble, while the mystical figure, Mother Ireland, appeared centre stage above.

The Celtic music for the Act 1 finale, Every Heart Awaken, was real stirring stuff, while the short cameo by Se Nicholson, as the Volunteer, was simply stunning here and the slow motion ambush scene in Revolution was well-achieved.

In the show programme, Musical Director, Conductor and Chorus Master, Patrick Clancy’s six musicians are referred to as a Band and between them they overcame the vast challenge that was supplying the varied music for this busy, almost sung-through score.

There were many highlights under Clancy’s direction, including the atmospheric pipe opening of the lament in the Prologue; the robust playing of the full Irish flavoured music in the rousing number, Price To Be Paid; and the stirring interpretation of the Celtic music for the Act 1 finale, Every Heart Awaken.

Choral work was to the fore also with the strong manly vocals in Prison Song and the great male chorus of the call to arms, Fly The Flag Of Freedom, which began with piano accompaniment before building up musically and vocally to a stirring anthem, sung with anger, conviction and commitment.

Choreographer, Gemma Grant ensured a high standard of choreography throughout and, although it was more about movement and positioning than big production routines, her concepts were well-executed and all groupings, positioning, movement and integration was excellent at all times.

While there were many choreographic highlights, a key feature was the vast array of lovely groupings, particularly the nice picture endings in most musical numbers.

Michael Hayes portrayed Michael Collins as a strong man who was a public speaker and a fighter out of pure conviction. Although he was cocky and joked at times, he insisted that he was a soldier and not a negotiator and, frustrated at what he had to do, was a most reluctant negotiator.

Hayes really captured all of these character traits in a great performance, which also displayed Collins’ softer, gentler and romantic side during the big romantic duet, Our Love Will Never End, and with his genteel dancing during Collins in London. This was a very strong performer and singer.

Tall and thin in stature, Ciaran Dunphy was a very realistic looking Eamon De Valera and perfectly captured his character’s growing confrontation with Collins.

While his first appearance showed the human side of his character, Dunphy’s clear and precise performance throughout soon highlighted the controlling aspects of his character’s nature. Indeed, this was a most controlled and convincing piece of acting, while his patter-style vocal was exactly what one would imagine this character to sound like in song.

As Collins’ friend and his rival for Kitty, Eoghan Fingleton’s interpretation of Harry Boland was that of a stubborn man who would not entertain any reconciliation with Collins. This performer made a great job of this.

As Collins’ girl, Kitty Kiernan, Kevina Hayes delivered some beautiful soft vocals and her romantic relationship with Collins was very believable.

As the mythical Mother Ireland (‘Kathleen Ni Houlihan’), Delia Larkin was the almost ever-present figure who watches over her country and guides her sons to do what is right for her and, overlooking the action in both the Collins story and the parallel staging of the play within a play, she was a vital link between the two. This performer and her physical appearance successfully achieved this.

In addition to their respective roles in the parallel staging of the play within a play by the Abbey Players, the four Players – Declan Taylor, Kevin Reade, Nicola Brennan and Sarah Brennan – also acted as a chorus of narrators in the Collins story. Performing in total unison at times, they were a strong grouping and brought a lot to this production with excellent diction and amazingly good vocals.

Gerry Taylor’s Lighting Design ensured that the atmospheric lighting was never less than brilliant. There was perfect plotting and all performers were always in their correct position for specific lighting moments.

Other solid off-stage support came from: Stage Manager, Seamus Reade, and team; Properties Master, Bill Kennedy; Star Systems’ sound mix; Costume Co-ordinators, Claire Gibbs and Sarah Brennan; and Val Sherlock, Catriona Barrett and Emma McGuinness’ hair and make-up.

I truthfully could not suggest anything to improve on this production as there wasn’t anything that I did not like.