Irish melodrama meets Riverdance: there was never any danger that this was going to be a bland evening, but the bejasus shenanigins (it’s catching) going on at the Albery unnecessarily gilds the shamrock. John McColgan, more used to controlling flashing Irish feet, has directed his cast to go all out for excess. And they don’t hold back.
Dion Boucicault’s 1874 comedy celebrates the daring of Conn the cunning shaughraun (translated as vagabond) in a rollercoaster plot involving a wronged heir, a grasping landlord and two well-bred colleens just waiting to be suitably married off. The villain of the piece is wicked Corry Kinchela (a moustachioed Stephen Brennan), bent on dispatching the noble Robert Ffolliott (Stephen Darcy), whom he has had wrongly imprisoned, and carrying off his bride-to-be.
Conn, likably played by an energetic Don Wycherley, is feckless but loyal and good-hearted, apparently sacrificing himself to save his young master’s life. Into this community, where no one speaks without a rolling eye or an extravagant gesture, comes the handsome, stiff-upper-lipped redcoat Captain Molineux (Rory Keenan). He’s soon transfixed by Robert’s spirited sister Claire, in which role Fiona O’Shaughnessy deploys her nipped-in waist and husky voice to advantage.
Coming in from the Abbey in Dublin, where it has been a component of the theatre’s centenary celebrations, McColgan’s production has a warm, well-worked-in feeling. The cast clearly all kissed the blarney stone at precisely the same moment and scamper confidently over Francis O'Connor’s substantial circling, granite-like set. The problem is that it can all get a bit exhausting for the audience and it’s difficult to bother much about the tensions of the plot if everything’s good for a laugh.
And what happened to Boucicault’s subtle political comment on English colonialism? It’s been replaced by a simpler world of goodies and baddies, all mugging like mad. Kinchela and his ginger-suited side-kick must be hissed and booed and the brave hero cheered. In case we don’t think of it ourselves, a voice orders us to react appropriately before the play begins.
The 1988 National Theatre production of The Shaughraun was more satisfying because there was variety of mood and rhythm, more space for characterisation and a genuine desire for a happy outcome. Here there’s a circus atmosphere from the start with a conjurer making fire and directing the curtain to disappear and allow the action to begin. The play ends with Conn’s beloved dog - a stangely somnambulant mutt in this hyperactive company - being magicked into view in a gilded cage.
Melodrama originally, as the word implies, included music and that’s beautifully integrated here, from the inevitable drum rolls to the soulful keening over Conn. Needless to say, the jigs are pretty fine too. But the overall effect is, unfortunately, one of stage-Irish self-indulgence.