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A pleasant surprise with a strong sense of identity

Review by Paul Nelson

MENTION of an Irish play brings out the worst in people's imaginations.

They imagine the plays should be pale imitations of O'Casey, Synge, the poet Yeats. Hardly anyone thinks of George Bernard Shaw as a strictly Irish playwright.

Therefore it is with a renewed sense of wonderment to find a real diamond in the GBS canon, and for once his tub-thumping is kept under leash.

John Bull's Other Island, at the Tricycle in Kilburn, is genuinely surprising.

The play was written in 1904, and has had very little airing since, which is a pity because it happens to be one of the better plays from the playwright's pen.

The plot sprawls a bit and some of the lesser characters are not as finely drawn as the main ones, but having said that I must temper it by insisting that the major characters are real and used prudently.

The play's main surprise is that it is about national identity, which is treated with a real lightness of touch.

I recall, from my student days in Dublin, two old Irish ladies looking after their even more aged mother who insisted they were English.

Their doctor told me the family had practically come over with Cromwell, but the identity was still theirs.

Unlike that trend, most English people become more Irish than the Irish themselves, and it is only rarely that one comes across an Irishman who would pass muster as a Barry Fitzgerald character actor.

There is one in Shaw's play. The rascally Haffigan (John Dougall), red nose and broad brogue is just such a character. Metaphorically, with the traditional whiskey under his belt and a shillelagh under his arm, he sets the tone of the play and from there it never looks back.

The baton is taken up by Keegan (Niall Buggy), a defrocked priest dispensing wisdom and homespun, an abomination in the sight of Father Dempsey (Mr Dougall again) and Cornelius Doyle (Michael O'Hagan).

The very English Thomas Broadbent (Charles Edwards), travelling to Ireland with his good friend and business partner, Lawrence Doyle (Gerrard McArthur), a very disillusioned Irishman, decides he must fight for the future of a dream Ireland, enter politics and marry a local lass.

On the way a little property speculation would do no harm, just a simple hotel complex and a golf course, you understand. Apparently the ex-pat Brit hasn't changed at all in nearly a hundred years.

All of this nearly comes to pass in a most delightful way and what the play fails to give is papered over expertly and seamlessly by both director and cast, to present an evening you will long remember.

Jokes from the bony hands of the wily Shaw will take you by surprise as will the discovery that a lot of the modern outlook of today was prevalent in England in those early Edwardian days.

It is an evening with which I could not find fault from the excellent settings, the truly satisfactory direction and the performances of a cast who deserve to move this play to the West End just as surely as did the last play at this venue, Arthur Miller's The Price.

To my mind both the performances and the play are superior to the latter. Judging by this production John Bull's Other Island has a firm place in the theatre.

John Bull's Other Island by George Bernard Shaw. Directed by Dominic Dromgoole, Designer Michael Taylor, Lighting Designer Mathew Eagland, Sound designer Mike Winship. WITH: Ewen Cummins (Hodson), Charles Edwards (Thomas Broadbent), John Dougall (Haffigan, Father Dempsey), Gerrard McArthur (Lawrence Doyle), Niall Buggy (Keegan), Alan Turkington (Patsy Farrell), Catherine Walker (Nora Reilly), Michael O'Hagan (Cornelius Doyle), Mary Conlon (Aunt Judy), Kieran Ahern (Matthew Haffigan) and David Ganly (Barney Doran). Presented by Tricycle Theatre Company at The Tricycle Theatre, 269 Kilburn High Road, London NW6, Tickets 020 7328 1000.

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