Stars explained: * A production of no real merit with failings in all areas. ** A production showing evidence of not enough time or effort, or even talent, and which never breathes any real life into the piece – or a show lumbered with a terrible script. *** A good enjoyable show which might have some small flaws but has largely achieved what it set out to do.**** An excellent show which shows a great deal of work and stage craft with no noticeable or major flaws.***** A four star show which has found that extra bit of magic which lifts theatre to another plane.
Half stars fall between the ratings

A slow fuse on history

Marital crisis: Jack Clitheroe (Pete Gillam) heads back to join the insurrection despite the entreaties of his pregnant wife Nora  (Lucy Hayton)

The Plough and the Stars

The Loft, Leamington Spa


SEAN O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars is a tough nut for an amateur company to undertake. It is protracted, patient and slow unfolding, occasionally panic-stricken and frenetic. It contains a large body of solo leads, all of whom must be credible, engaging and compelling, and distinctively Irish.

It needs skill and insight to sustain interest, and achieve shifts in mood, anxiety to optimism, loneliness to brief flurries of cooperation or unanimity.

The Starry Plough was the famous flag or banner originally adopted in 1914 by the Irish Citizen Army, to which the play’s socialist-leaning military hero Jack belonged, and for which he re-enlists. A (then) green and yellow flag encompassing the sign of Ursa Major – seven silver stars, elaborated into a sword-bearing figure - it resurfaced during the 1916 Dublin Easter Uprising, on which the play focuses.

Leamington’s Loft Theatre has a reputation for and a knack of achieving just this: tackling challenging, not always obvious or populist repertoire, bringing out its urgent seriousness and intensity; and in many respects this O’Casey production by Gordon Vallins, for years a key force at the Loft in encouraging this mature approach to amateur drama (The Threepenny Opera, Look Back in Anger, Oleanna, The Cherry Orchard and so on) underlined the company’s courage, spirit and verve: there is plenty of dramatic talent alive and thriving beside the Leam.

The staging benefited from this hardworking cast’s unflagging conviction. Everyone in the team contributed vividly and dedicatedly to this production; the acting was consistent, dependable and often enough strong; their overall view of the piece worked; the tensions – while the Republicans fight to the last, some family members are even then fighting with the British Army in Flanders – were well maintained.

Bessie Burgess (Wendy Morris, rightt) knows better than charlady Mrs. Gogan (Elspeth Dales)

There was intermittent power of invention, a dutiful persistence and a doggedness in every individual interpretation which, if not quite pushing the door open to professional standards, represented here and there something close to the best in amateur theatre. It was forceful, gutsy, poignant, tragic, comic.

Well, perhaps not comic enough. There is a delicious, almost hilarious comic moment when a character (Bessie I think), fulminating against looters, slyly turns up with three multicoloured umbrellas. But there is a need in O’Casey – certainly this one – to lighten the load. Melodrama is present much of the time, much of it bleak. The play, and the players, need space; moments to breathe.

In many respects that’s to a degree a drawback not of the production but of the play. The build-up to the final tragic outcome is at times painfully slow. 1926, when it was first seen, was not 1916, but ten years on, a precariously established Eire. It has little of the frenetic, bombed-out intensity of, say, Journey’s End, another play which looks back so pungently in the latter 1920s at the exigencies of an era of appalling tension and out and out warfare.

So to the positives, and there were many. It is Wendy Morris as the burly, larger than life Bessie Burgess who will pay the ultimate price, and hers was a presence that dominated from her first entry to her death, folding on to her large tummy like a slowly deflating cushion. If anything, we got the comedy from her intolerant and judgmental self, initially the local pariah, prying and pestering, and latterly an unexpected heroine. Morris’s was a performance that commanded the stage, and the house.

And all very Oirish. One was impressively struck in Vallins’ well-drilled, eager, forthright cast by the Irish accents, not just hers, but all round: their aptness, their reliability and consistency, their contrast, their well-craftedness. Often a stumbling block elsewhere, that alone was a notably secure aspect that laid a secure foundation for the whole evening at the Loft.

Costumes were a strong point all through. The lighting, though sometimes effectively low, seemed a fraction bland; but the projections – powerfully evocative black and white photographs of Dublin before and after the massive bombardment of, notably, the Post Office and the Four Courts – were especially effective; more so, it should be said, than the set, which gave a feel of Irish poverty of the time by its very paucity, but was, as can be a drawback in amateur stagings anywhere, flimsy in construction with unconvincing (perhaps unnecessary) door and flatly unspecific, despite several hopeful set changes.

Wendy Morris as the doomed intrusive neighbour, Bessie Burgess, with the anguished Nora (Lucy Hayton) at the  rear

Moves were iffy. Characters were perhaps too rarely placed in subtle, striking or symbolic blocks, so that this aspect of the direction, plus some but by no means all the toings and froings, looked outwardly well emough plotted but in enaction marginally laissez-faire. By contrast, the silhouetting of a British officer issuing threats and pontificating on principles was ominous, and almost eerily well conceived.

Pete Gillam – The History Boys’ made a handsome, honest job of doomed Jack Clitheroe, torn between wife and comrades, the old fight and fresh family hope, who – having withdrawn from the citizen army, perhaps miffed by non-promotion - hearing of the crucial meeting on Parnell Square and march is honourably lured back to the Provisionals in time to catch the Easter Uprising.

The Ibsenesque emotional weight of the play rests more on his hapless wife, Nora (Lucy Hayton), gradually losing her wits as well as her baby. This was a moving performance, her artful breaking of her sentences powerful and emotive and appealing, her panic believable, her whole performance full of poignancy and tenderness and loveliness.

One found something akin in Mollser, consumptive child of the able, chirpy Mrs. Gogan (the Loft’s Artistic Administrator Elspeth Dales). A tragically doomed figure, Mollser (Romy Alexander) is one of several characters who (unless self made-up) confirmed with her blackened, sunken eyes the skill and indeed expertise of the Loft’s make-up backroom team: Alexander brought a tangible sadness, vacant look and deep expressiveness to this achingly sad young part. Well worth a lead role in future, I’d say.

The pub girl-cum-floozy, Rosie Redmond (Emmeline Braefield) had such good delivery, I’d have her on my ‘A’ list too. Another minor character who caught the eye, making his Loft debut but bringing an intelligence and proficiency to two military roles that marked him out, was Pete Meredith. This looked like talent in the making, or indeed talent already arrived.

The old geezers were appealing too: at times, a sort of Last of the Summer Wine on the edge of the Liffey. Chris Old as Uncle Peter, ‘that malignant old varmint’ but rather a gentle, shaggy directionless soul, Seamus Crowe more absorbing in the prominent role of Fluther Goode (particularly splendid when sozzled) – all the men have humble jobs: carpenter, bricklayer, fitter, labourer, vintner.

It looks like curtains for young Irish Volunteer Lieutenant Langon (Pete Meredith) for all the sympathetic Captain Brennan (David Perryman) can do to save him

 Joel Cooper was an interesting, slightly indefinable, seemingly call-up free presence flitting around as The Covey, an attentive male cousin of the central couple. Tommy, the bartender, was one of a pair of smaller roles performed characterfully and cogently by Hugh Sorrill.

There was a tendency rather over-dutifully to face downstage (Peter almost obsessively; the acoustic does not demand it), so that twice or three times five or six cast formed a tedious horizontal line front- or midstage that looked painfully inept. Reactions to characters and events were always well done; but instant - rarely prepared or followed through: something amateur theatre has consistently to work at to have a hope of comparing with their employed opposite numbers.

By the time we get to ‘Keep the Home Fires Burning’, at the end – how it pales beside ‘Sinne Fianna Fail’, the Irish national anthem redolent of their last stand at Dublin’s Post Office - we are forcefully reminded that the British, no the Irish, are the victors, at least till 1922, when Michael Collins is dead and De Valera’s hotchpotch extreme coalition seizes the day. Sitting precariously on a civilian as well as military powderkeg, this is a vexed but serious play about torn loyalties and the psychological plus family collapse that marches with them.

The Loft is a marvellous family itself, a venue that is rooted in a massive range of serious theatre, the likes of Uncle Vanya, A Streetcar Names Desire, Mother Courage Breaking the Code, Calendar Girls; assuredly a treat to come, May will see them commemorate Dylan Thomas’s centenary with Under Milk Wood. That the company should assay the best in Irish drama is no surprise. But the enduring satisfaction is that, now under Tim Willis’s Artistic Directorship, at the Loft serious and gripping drama is patently alive and well and in good hands.

Robert Harling’s bittersweet comedy-drama Steel Magnolias is at the Loft from Wednesday 2-Saturday 12 April. Under Milk Wood runs from Wednesday 7-Saturday 17 May. 0844 493 4938 

Roderic Dunnett

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