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A Man of No Importance

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars
The little Union Theatre in Southwark has bravely transferred its revival of a musical about a sexually repressed Dublin bus conductor putting on an amateur production of Oscar Wilde’s Salome, but I can’t see Alfie “hold very tight, please” Byrne selling too many tickets or shouting out “standing room only” every night.

A Man of No Importance proves, alas, a musical of little significance; it just doesn’t take off and there’s no second act worth mentioning. The Ragtime team of librettist Terrence McNally, lyricist Lynn Ahrens and composer Stephen Flaherty (the last two also wrote the charming Once on this Island) adapted a little-known 1994 film starring Albert Finney as Alfie (with Rufus Sewell, Tara Fitzgerald and Michael Gambon) for an off-Broadway musical with Roger Rees in the lead in 2003.

By the end of the first act we know that Paul Clarkson’s slightly unlikely, intellectually severe bus conductor is really gay after being eyed-up across a crowded bar by Dieter Thomas’s Breton Beret. And although there are some fairly lively am-dram rehearsal scenes, and Alfie finds his perfect princess for the stage - Roisin Sullivan as Adele from Roscommon providing the spurious romantic conflict - the music remains earthbound and ordinary, the lyrics perfectly good but no more than serviceable.

The ghost of old Oscar turns up, too, appearing out of the shadows like Alfred Hitchcock in one of his own films, and almost as round, but the idea of Oscar urging anyone else to come out of the closet seems a bit rich as he spent half his own life posing as a loyal husband in high society.

Any excesses in Salome are passed off by Alfie to the fussing parish priest Father Kenny (A J O'Neill) as all in the cause of “art” and it seems strange therefore that we’re not even treated to a flicker of the seven veils or a bloody bonce on a plate. So, what’s it all about, Alfie?

The programme doesn’t list the musical numbers so I can’t identify the unmemorable songs, but at least the basics of musical staging are well observed by director Ben De Wynter and choreographer Phyllida Crowley-Smith, and James Turner’s design is suitably cheap and cheerful for the streets of Dublin and the fusty old church hall.

- Michael Coveney

NOTE: The following FOUR STAR review dates from 13 November 2009, and this production's premiere at the Union Theatre.

If you shy away from the word ‘charming’ when applied to musicals, don’t see this one. Likewise ‘bittersweet’. A Man of No Importance (book by Terrence McNally) is based on the movie of the same name, and was first produced in New York, winning an award for Best Off-Broadway Musical in 2003.

Act One winds its way to the none-too-startling revelation that our hero, Alfie Byrne, a Dublin bus conductor in love with poetry, drama and, in particular, the works of Oscar Wilde, is himself in thrall to the love that dare not speak its name. Act Two charts the belated rite of passage by which he faces up to his true nature, finds degradation and, ultimately, acceptance. A none-too-startling plot either, and, given the fact that the show is set in an Ireland where bus conductors are still respected members of the community, and still clip passengers’ tickets, it has bucketfuls of the aforementioned bittersweet charm and a liberal helping of sentimentality.

The production, directed by Ben De Wynter, is a low-budget, small-space marvel. Stephen Flaherty’s music is haunting and evocative, if overly reliant on the lilting tones of flute and penny-whistle, and Lynn Ahrens’s lyrics are sharp and well-characterised. A lament on Alfie’s preoccupation with books is particularly memorable.

Alfie’s great ambition is to stage an amateur production of Wilde’s Salomé, which, in a tight-knit Catholic community, is doomed, rather too obviously, to an inglorious end. The chief pleasure of this show, however, is not the subtlety (or otherwise) of the plotting, but the ensemble playing of the cast. Olivier Award-winner Paul Clarkson has just the right combination of believable innocence and beguiling zeal as Alfie, enthusing his loyal band of bus passengers with the nature of art, and Róisín Sullivan, the shy girl from Roscommon who is persuaded to be his Salomé, is a delight. Also notable in a 17-strong cast are Anthony Cable as a widower who still misses the cuddles of his ample wife, Paul Monaghan as Alfie’s leading man and subsequent betrayer, and Joanna Nevin as his long-suffering sister.

The Oscar Wilde angle (and yes, he does make an appearance, to spur on our timid hero) is tiresome and too clunking a device, but if you want a good-hearted show to send you out into a wintry night with a smile on your face, this one will more than do the trick.

- Giles Cole


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