Speaking to the Celt last week, Philip Doherty reckoned that his latest play, The Birthday Man, was his most ambitious to date. Last Wednesday’s premiere at The Life of Reilly Festival proved him right. It was also the Cavan playwright-director’s best.
A whirlwind trip through a century of history, over 20 characters, riot scenes, gory executions, bombings, camaraderie and betrayals galore - it had the lot.
To pull it off Doherty entwined the strongest strands of his previous work: Fleadh Town’s cinematic quick-fire scenes and multi-tasking actors, the political venom of The Great Couch Rebellion, and the adventurous multi-media of The Devil’s Ceili. The results were a head-spinning two-hour epic.
The character which linked the 100-year narrative was Oisin (superbly played by Killian McGuinness).
The Cavan Town Hall Theatre audience were introduced to Oisin as a baby, born to parents Mary and Jack (Eva Jane Gaffney and Rex Ryan) in the most desperate of Dublin’s tenements in 1913.
Struggling to support his family, and facing eviction threats from a lecherous Fagan-esque landlord (Ruairi Heading), Oisin’s principled father is amongst the unionised workers left penniless as a range of businesses, led by William Murphy, locked them out from their workplaces in one a pivotal moment in Irish history.
A swift rearrangement of furniture, a snippet of Human League, and we’re transported to 1983 where we next encounter Oisin as a cannabis-loving 70-year-old hippy in London.
His ex-IRA son, Dermot (Kieran Roache), is under duress to follow orders and carry out a bombing mission.
A menacing paramilitary boss threatens his pregnant wife, Megan (Cara Christie), to ensure he goes through with it.
Another scene change and we meet Oisin suffering from dementia and at the mercy of his granddaughter Lorraine (Aislinn O’Byrne).
Each of the characters have their own set of principles but they are under immense strain - the audience watched to see if they will hold fast or buckle.
Doherty’s snappy dialogue and complex plotting, and the highest quality of acting combined for an exceptional production. The entire cast was excellent and Rex Ryan has genuine star quality.
Another star of the night was the theatre visionary Annie-June Callaghan, who as set design and stage manager has brought real imagination to local drama.
The bomb scene perfectly timed for the explosive opening of Bowie’s Let Dance was thrilling, as was the jolting effect of an execution carried out in silhouette, which left a crimson wash across the backdrop.
She shouldn’t be allowed near a fishing tackle shop, however, as she projected live maggots to reflect the decay.
Challenged with introducing so many characters, in three different eras, each with their different styles (poignant drama for 1913, thriller for 1983 and black comedy for 2013), the opening scenes inevitably felt a little disjointed.
Part of the problem was that in time-hopping from 1913 to 2013, it required the cast to fold an antique bed up into two modern chairs.
While it was cleverly constructed, it was distracting. However, The Birthday Man soon found its rhythm and Wednesday’s audience was transfixed throughout.
With an enforced time limit of 90 minutes for its 10-night run at the Dublin Fringe Festival, The Birthday Man should be all the better for Philip’s scissors by then.
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