Eileen Atkins and Imelda Staunton star in the world premiere of Frank McGuinness’ There Came a Gypsy Riding, which opened last night (18 January 2007, previews from 11 January) at north London’s Almeida Theatre, where it continues until 3 March 2007 (See Today’s 1st Night Photos).

The play, directed by Almeida artistic director Michael Attenborough, centres on the McKenna family, who convene at their remote west of Ireland holiday home to mark the 21st birthday of their late son Gene, who killed himself two years earlier. Eccentric cousin Bridget appears, invites herself in for cake, and makes ready to expose a family secret. Also in the cast are Ian McElhinney, Elaine Cassidy and Aidan McArdle.

First night critics were mainly won over by the melodrama mixed with a sharp and witty dialogue by McGuinness, and praised the strong performances of the cast as a family struggling to cope with grief. However, one strongly dissenting voice, Evening Standard critic Nicholas de Jongh, found the play old-fashioned and dull, with Atkins the only almost-saving grace.

  • Heather Neill on Whatsonstage.com (4 stars) – “Folksy charm, a sensual pleasure in language and story, witchy wisdom, superstition, a dash of music and the power of alcohol - the staple ingredients of Irish drama are all to be found in Frank McGuinness’ latest piece…. McGuinness flirts with sentimentality, trifles with cliché, but at every turn he pre-empts the wallow or the syrupy moment with a sharp joke. These are quick articulate characters who are adept at hiding feelings with familiar bitchy banter. The only duff note comes when Margaret breaks down and the script takes a melodramatic turn. Imelda Staunton tackles this and her character’s rather self-conscious attachment to Keats - another young man who died young - with brave commitment. McGuinness is very much on form at the end: as Margaret leaves she tells Bridget (a magnificently wild, hilarious and touching Eileen Atkins), affectionately, not to let the cottage burn, but if it does to be sure she’s in it.”

  • Michael Billington in the Guardian (4 stars) – “In Irish drama the dead are always with us…. And, although we never actually see the dead son who drives the action in Frank McGuinness' new play, his presence haunts every line of this elegantly written, exquisitely acted Michael Attenborough production. The situation is classically simple. A family gathers in its Galway holiday home to mark the 21st birthday of Eugene, who committed suicide two years ago; what we see is the divisive nature of grief.... Although we learn a lot about the flawed Eugene, McGuinness is not out to mock false pieties. His theme… is the way ancient superstitions persist even in modern materialist Ireland…. This is highlighted in Bridget, who, in Eileen Atkins' breathtaking performance, dominates the play…. It is a performance of vitality and sadness… Imelda Staunton has a harder task reconciling us to Margaret…. by sheer acting, she persuades us of the character's violent mood switches. Ian McElhinney is unequivocally good as the Dublin businessman who finds wealth cannot disguise grief.”

  • Benedict Nightingale in The Times (4 stars) – “The performers on stage at the Almeida include Eileen Atkins as a batty yet sly old crone and Imelda Staunton as her cousin by marriage, a tough Donegal peasant turned domineering Dublin academic; but nobody’s presence is more strongly felt than the reason for this grim celebration, the suicide of a 19-year-old boy exactly two years ago. Why do people kill themselves, leaving baffled, troubled relatives behind?.... This is a dense, and, at times, a difficult play that raises plenty of pertinent and not-so-pertinent questions. But the main one is this: how do people cope with suicide? Atkins’ contribution is interestingly inscrutable. She’s the family witch or, as she says, the ‘confused fairy’ who found Gene on that beach and kept his suicide note from his parents. But why? To relieve her loneliness by privately possessing the boy’s last testament? Or just to add tension to a play that threatens to get bogged down in agonised elegy? I don’t know; but I do know about the acting in Michael Attenborough’s production…. Top-notch performances.”

  • Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard (2 stars) – “If you gave Frank McGuinness' middle-class Irish characters English accents, settled them by the Sussex seaside with a period kitchen, and removed a modest sprinkling of expletives, then There Came a Gypsy Riding could easily be mistaken for an old-fashioned country house drama in Shaftesbury Avenue starring Ralph Richardson, Flora Robson and Margaret Rutherford. It would have opened in 1955 and run for just a few weeks. For McGuinness' unenlightening play about suicide and bereavement is couched in a defunct theatrical form and lacks a dramatic pulse…. Lethargy creeps into Michael Attenborough's torpid production…. It is the haunting Dame Eileen, all staring eyes and wild white wig, who half-saves the evening, by enabling shafts of black comedy to penetrate McGuinness' aimless gloom.”

    - by Caroline Ansdell