(the Colleen Bawn) ….. Liz Kuti
Anne Chute (the Colleen
Ruadh) ….. Alison McKenna
Hardress Cregan ….. Peter O’Meara
Mrs. Cregan ….. Barbara Brennan
Kyrle Daly ….. Sean Rocks
Mr. Corrigan ….. Bosco Hogan
Father Tom ….. Des Keogh
Sheelah Mann ….. Joan O’Hara
Danny Mann ….. Pat Kinevane
Myles-na-Coppaleen ….. Darragh Kelly
Bertie O’Moore ….. Mal Whyte
Hyland Creagh ….. Denis Conway
Ducie Blennerhasset ….. Alice Barry
Kathleen Creagh ….. Laura Forrest-Hay
Patsy O’Moore ….. Gerry McCann
Servant ….. Diane O’Keeffe
Corporal ….. Enda Kilroy
Red Coats ….. Simon Dalton,
Marc Dylan, Seamus Fox,
Keith McErlane, Mark O’Brien.
Musicians: Conor Linehan, Ruth Hickey, Oonagh Keogh, Ellen Cranitch, Martin Nolan.
Take Dion Boucicault’s beloved melodrama, add the intelligence, energy and visual inventiveness of director Conall Morrison, and throw in a sizable production budget: One would have expected the result to be an unqualified summertime hit for the Abbey Theater. But “The Colleen Bawn” doesn’t add up to nearly as much fun as its ingredients would have suggested. While the production has much to recommend it, particularly its brilliantly conceived and executed musicalization, there is an overall sense that the material is being overwhelmed by the production values lavished upon it.
Set in the Southwest of Ireland in the mid-1800s, the play tells the story of handsome young Hardress Cregan and his widowed mother, who are about to lose their home to their dastardly landlord. The solution would seem to be a marriage between Hardress and the wealthy and lovely Anne Chute; but Hardress, it’s revealed, is already secretly married to the equally lovely, but penniless Eily O’Connor — the Colleen Bawn (blonde beauty) of the title — and Anne herself is in love not with Hardress, but with his best friend.
Eily lives across the lake from the posh people, in the company of a number of stock Irish types including her erstwhile suitor, the sprightly moonshine merchant Myles-na-Coppaleen. The deus ex machina in the mix is Hardress’ hunchback servant Danny Mann, who will go to any lengths — including murder, it transpires — to please his master. Many letters are concealed, plots and cross-plots hatched, and high-level heroics undertaken before all previous obstacles to narrative resolution miraculously disappear in a quick-fix happy ending worthy of a Shakespearean comedy.
One of the best qualities of Morrison’s production is its lovingly tongue-in-cheek quality; it is full of knowing directorial winks to the audience — like the wonderfully funny series of tableaux opening each act — that acknowledge that this is all terribly out of fashion, but a good laugh just the same.
The production is underscored throughout with original music by the preternaturally talented young composer Conor Linehan, which is played live by an onstage five-person orchestra; as in film, the music blends with the action rather than standing apart from it.
And the production really hits its stride in its few fully staged musical numbers (this production reunites Morrison with David Bolger, the choreographer of their acclaimed Abbey production of “Tarry Flynn”), which are as cleverly conceived as they are completely unexpected and totally extraneous to the plot: One character will start to sing an Irish ditty, and suddenly a full chorus of musicians and singers pop out on stage for a few minutes of rollicking song and dance.
But these musical moments, in their energy and inventiveness, also serve to highlight how plodding and over-extended many of the production’s book scenes are; particularly in the first act, many dramatic moments are missed and punch lines muffed. The whole enterprise ends up overstaying its welcome considerably; a three-hour playing time for a story that is pretty much of a lark seems unmerited.
While some of the actors play the heightened style with marvelous ease — particularly Peter O’Meara as Hardress, Alison McKenna as Anne, Barbara Brennan as Mrs. Cregan, and Pat Kinevane as Danny — the effort of others is all too evident. While she has the right blond good looks for the part, Liz Kuti is playing against type as the rough country lass Eily, and the usually excellent Darragh Kelly also seems to be struggling as Myles.
The physical production is quite splendid: Ben Ormerod’s lighting and Joan O’Clery’s costumes are subtle at some points and over-the-top at others, in just the right measure. Francis O’Connor’s ingeniously versatile set features a steep raked stage, bits of which pop up to form the back walls for interior scenes, and some flying pieces of scenery which help provide the many changes of locale the play requires.
With “Tarry Flynn” and now this production, Morrison’s work has been edging closer and closer to the scale and production values of a full-blown musical; appropriately enough, his next undertaking is the restaging of “Martin Guerre” for Cameron Mackintosh at the West Yorkshire Playhouse. Now there’s a story for him to really get his teeth into; this one, alas, was too much icing on precious little cake.