The Dead School
Tricycle Theatre February-March 2010
You don't have to be Irish to enjoy Pat McCabe's stage adaptation of his 1995 novel, but - what with the local references, chunks of Gaelic, throwaway gags that mean little to an outsider, and especially the very Irish characters and subject matter - it certainly helps.
And indeed the play toured a circuit of provincial Irish theatres for two years, to great success, before coming to London for this short run.
Perhaps a bit too sprawling for the stage, McCabe's story centres on a Church-based Dublin school over several generations. Beginning with the early-twentieth-century birth of a boy, we follow him through his time at the school and beyond, as he becomes a young teacher in the same school, eventually ageing into a hidebound veteran frightened by pedagogic and social changes in the 1960s and 1970s.
Meanwhile one of his pupils follows a similar path, becoming a junior teacher just as the older man is fading, but proving no more capable of handling either the job or his private life.
McCabe and director Padriac McIntyre invest at least the first half of this epic with theatrical energy by telling it at high speed through a string of inventive staging devices.
With Sean Campion playing the older teacher and Nick Lee the younger, Carrie Crowley, Gemma Reeves and Peter Daly play Everyone Else - and for much of the first act Everyone Else playing Someone Else, as the conceit has the older teacher's pupils acting out scenes from his life.
The constant transformations and rapid role switches make for a lot of fun, and carry us through the story without giving us time to notice how essentially undramatic it is.
And they do so with a minimum of confusion, though an evidently supernatural beggar character whose appearances signal doom may be more instantly recognisable to Irish audiences, and I spent several minutes at one point unclear as to who had just died.
But the device is dropped before the end of Act One, and the dramatic energy and pace drop with it, leaving the last part of the play downbeat not only because it shows the two heroes' parallel declines but because it plods along rather lifelessly, leaving us too aware of the story's soap opera quality.
I would never recommend leaving a play halfway through, but just be aware that by the interval you will have seen the best of what's on offer.
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Review of The Dead School - Tricycle Theatre 2010