Words: Gerry Cody
Photos: Anne Phelan
Gowran Little theatre is anything but. Little I mean. As a theatre company they are amongst the best. And that’s not just the strength they have as actors. From the moment their next production is chosen, the marketing wheels start turning. Facebook, Twitter and direct emails begin to flow, and there is not a soul within a thirty mile radius of the town that was once the residence of the Kings of Ossory, who would not be aware that a production was nigh.
Posters and road signs follow and even when the tickets are all but sold out, they leave nothing to chance. Marketing stops when the final curtain is drawn. That is the makeup of the group. One hundred percent from start to finish. And so to their latest offering from one of the country’s best known and respected writers Brian Friel
Brian Friel was born in Omagh, Co. Tyrone, and in 1939 moved with his family to Derry. He published two collections of short stories, ‘A Saucer of Larks’ and ‘The Gold in the Sea.’ In 1980, Brian Friel co-founded the Field Day Theatre Company in Derry. His numerous awards include the London Evening Standard Award for ‘Aristocrats’ (1988) and again for ‘The Home Place’ (2005), a Tony Award (1992) and Laurence Olivier Award (1991) for the massively successful ‘Dancing at Lughnasa’ and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Irish Times (1999). To mark their ninth production, Gowran chose ‘The Communication Cord’.
A response to the success of translations
Critics have often noted that when a particular Friel play meets with both critical and commercial success he invariably then writes another work that satirizes the themes of the earlier play. The third Friel play produced by Field Day, ‘The Communication Cord’, is widely regarded as a retaliatory response to the success of Translations. The Communication Cord is a complicated sexual farce involving several couples wherein Friel relentlessly parodies both academia and the tendency to treat the Irish past with an overly reverent attitude. Irish Time journalist Fintan O’Toole, a long-time fan of the Derry author is quoted as saying: “Friel was determined to demolish a sentimental rhetoric rendering sacred all that belonged to tradition.”
The plot centres on the character of Tim Gallagher, a junior lecturer in linguistics, who is borrowing his friend Jack’s cottage so he can pretend to his girlfriend’s father (the corrupt Senator Donovan, a local politician of the “comely maidens dancing on the village green” variety) that he in fact owns the property and is responsible for its restoration. Tim is writing a thesis on “Discourse Analysis with Particular Reference to Response Cries,” and one of the many ironies running through the play is that his character is woefully inarticulate except in the context of discussing his thesis. Confusion and chaos abound, with every character at some point confused with another or assumed to be what they are not. As is characteristic of Friel, this confusion is achieved through linguistic descriptions and failure of communication. In a nutshell, the Sir Walter Scott quote seems apt: “Oh, what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive”.
Thirty years experience shows
Great credit must go to director Declan Taylor for firstly casting this show with very talented actors. His almost thirty years involvement in theatre served him well as he put the actors through their paces in this funny and sometimes hilarious farce.
Timing, facial reaction, and body movement was essential if this farce was to reach its potential. One of the problems encountered by many amateur (and some professional) groups is to allow the performance to slip over the thin line that divides farce from Pantomime. However the cast delivered in spades. Taylor’s handprint was ‘writ large’ all over the two hour show, as move after move and laugh after laugh was delivered with precision and gusto, ensuring the Panto’ border was not just kept at a safe distance, but kicked to Christmas. This is Gowrans eight production since their inception in 2012. (Covid put a halt to two further shows)
The play is set in Ballybeg, Donegal. The first two actors on stage to set the scene are Alan Grant and Peter Madden. Both were brilliant. Teasing the audience and drawing them in, as their comedic talent got the crowd relaxed, comfortable and into the mood for the rollercoaster that was to follow. There was a bond between the two that seemed to resemble two tennis players serving ball after ball, each confident in the others ability to deliver return after return. It would be difficult to cast two actors as good. A slip or a drop of word in their dialogue would have been a disaster. No such slip occurred. One imagines they would scoff at the idea of such a thing. Confidence on stage is a mighty tool to own.
And there followed a stream of actors, as good as you’ll get, to tell this Friel story. Judith McCormack was unrecognisable as Nora Dan. Her characterisation of the character was flawless. Mannerisms perfection personified. Credit to whoever did her make-up. McCormack has appeared previously with Gowran, but she played the proverbial blinder in this show. She may have played equally good roles in previous shows, but I would guess none better. Orna Ward comes from great acting stock. As they might say in Donegal “Briseann an dúchas trí shúile an chait” (nature breaks through the eyes of the cat). Her performance proved that the apple didn’t fall far from the theatrical tree. Derek Lawler and John Kennedy are both Gowran natives and have been regular performers in plays and Pantomime. Suffice to say that both men played their parts brilliantly and contributed enormously to the laughter on the night.
Two Kilkenny based actors, Kevina Hayes and Clare Gibbs had the more difficult parts insofar as they played the straight roles. In a way this was the trump casting card played by director Taylor. Both ladies have been in enough shows to realise that not all actors have the comedy lines. Both excelled, and their straight acting allowed their fellow actors garner the laughter, epitomising the importance of generous actors.
Costumes, set design and sound and light contributed greatly to the show.
Backstage crew: Mary Walsh, Brian McCormack, Mike Brown, John McCormack, Malcolm Greenslade and Andrew O’Leary. Front of house: Mary Walsh, Emily McCormack. Anne Murray, Siobhán Maher and Claire Delaney.
AND FINALLY: In an interview with ‘The Examiner’ newspaper at the end of his hurling managerial career, Brian Cody was asked what sustained him over his long career. Cody replied: “As long as you love something and have a passion for it, it is easy stay with it.”
Those two qualities seem to be in abundance in the Gowran Little Theatre Group, so it looks like they are here for the long haul. And great that it is so.
NOTE: Another Friel play, ‘Philadelphia Here I Come’, will be performed by Barnstorm theatre company in Kilkenny in November, as part of Curriculum play live 2022.