Terrence McNally’s A Man of No Importance, made into a little known film starring Albert Finney back in 1994, is not an obvious candidate for receiving a musical ‘treatment’ in it’s adaptation for the stage. But this is exactly what Stephen Flaherty (composer) and Lynn Ahrens (lyricist), the team behind Ragtime (along with McNally) and Once on this Island, have done in this charming oddity, now playing at Salisbury Playhouse.
Set in early 1960s Dublin, bus conductor Alfie Byrne, leading light of St Imelda’s Amateur Theatre Company, struggles with life, love and the pursuit of his “art” in a repressive, catholic community. Tired of staging their usual production of The Importance of Being Earnest, Alfie plans to tackle Salome - another, more challenging and decidedly more risqué, work from the pen of his idol Oscar Wilde. Battling to create a work of art, and wrestling with the naivety and dubious acting talents of his cast, Alfie underestimates the controversy his production will ignite, leading him to a confrontation with his local church elders and ultimately a personal, and life changing epiphany.
The play-within-a play-scenario, ever popular in comedies such as Noises Off and A Chorus of Disapproval, is great fun, and indulges our obsession for seeing how theatre-types carry on. The tumultuous rehearsal scenes, with an assortment of broadly drawn characters, rejoices in our stereotypical view of amateur drama groups. Esther Biddle’s Miss Crowe, and Susannah van den Berg’s Mrs Curtin are particularly well observed – Mrs Curtin’s enthusiastic ‘dance of the seven veils’ as a tap number, is a delight.
Unfortunately the book is decidedly unsatisfying, and the central thrust of the story, Alfie’s struggle to accept his own sexuality and love for workmate Robbie, is not given the proper exploration it deserves, dealt with very superficially and played out in a number of rather clichéd episodes. The parallels drawn between Alfie’s life and that of Oscar Wilde are clumsy, and the appearance of the great man himself are ever-so-slightly toe-curling in parts. Flaherty and Ahrens’ musical numbers, although providing an authentic Celtic feel , and brilliantly executed by the talented actor/musician cast, does not add any real emotional depth either, and is unlikely to linger in the mind once you leave the auditorium.
The twelve strong cast work tirelessly acting, playing a variety of instruments, and moving to Alistair David’s evocative choreography, make the show, and with a nice, tidy ending, and rousing celtic finale, sends you out feeling you’ve been properly entertained.