Co Waterford-born playwright Tom O’Brien was in the audience for the home premiere of his one-man play Johnjo at Central Arts, up Andy Jordan’s Lane. Actor Eamon Culloty for Stagemad Theatre delivered a poignant and at times angry portrayal of Johnjo McGrath, whose home life on a distressed farm at the foot of the Comeraghs (‘Ye can’t feed beasts on rocks’) was the starting point for his adventures in Ireland and England. O’Brien has enjoyed success with two of his plays being produced in London this year and two others being considered for later and he has just finished a major work on Tom Gilmartin that is at the rehearsed reading stage.
Johnjo is part of his The Waterford Collection, a set of three plays, with images of the new bridge on its cover. I can only speculate what thoughts were in his head, seeing his work on home boards. The need for affirmation by the home place is so strong yet the character Johnjo, who had to leave Ireland in a hurry, knew he could never go home again. This theme was so well served in Jimmy Murphy’s The Kings Of The Kilburn High Road for Red Kettle.
Johnjo walks onstage singing “Come all ye loyal heroes”; neat suit and Seventies floral tie – farmer in name only who got caught up in sheep stealing and knifed a man and had to flee to England with a bogus identity of Tom Dooley on a Library card. He worked for sub-contractors who subbed out wages each week and this cycle of life was cruel and perhaps worse than being dispossessed in rural Ireland. Living in pubs, backs of transit vans, damp accommodation and seeking enjoyment in pubs, clubs and dance halls at the weekend.
A homosexual suggestion was glossed over in this production where James Power’s direction left a lot to be desired, especially in the many songs and music that are part of the script. O’Brien was in a showband, The Royal Dukes, who rehearsed in The Rainbow Hall in Kilmacthomas, and two of his soon to be produced plays are like jukebox musicals (‘I’ll Tell Me Ma’ – about Liam Clancy and Kathy Kirby- ‘Icon’).
The world of the Irish navvy is well expressed and the ‘new enemy’ is the Irish boss, Banagher, who is involved in dodgy schemes to make money, like promoting a man buried alive in a coffin with air and food supply to break a Guinness Book of Records inclusion.
The play ended abruptly with an explosion and left a disappointed feeling.
The Elephant Man
Fergal Millar was impressive and expressive as The Elephant Man (John Merrick) with Kats Theatre Group at the Watergate Kilkenny. This story by Bernard Pomerance has revived interest in this gruesome and tragic tale since American actor Bradley Cooper (American Sniper) took on the role on both Broadway and the West End. Millar also performed without prostheses and makeup and the scene where his body takes on the posture was amazing. He stood semi-naked and slowly he becomes twisted and lopsided, his mouth contorts and his face became grotesque. A hand retracts and distorts and he shuffles forward on one leg with the aid of a walking stick.
Throughout the play, two 50-minute acts with an interval, he held these postures and a clever reversal towards the end that was a coup de theatre. His posture was central to the story of abuse as a fairground attraction in a travelling show, where Ben Warner shone as Ross the manipulative Showman. He was rescued by a doctor, Frederick Treves and eventually became a society celebrity and was invited to exciting events by royalty. This was a measured and slow production with muffled sounds and a repeating chimes-tone to mark about twenty scene changes in a very episodic script. Don O’Connor directed with confidence and competence. His handling of the disrobing scene, as famous London actress Mrs Kendal exposes herself to Merrick, was tasteful yet powerful. Teresa Brennan as Kendal handled this splendidly.
Orna Ward and Rachel Madden were excellent as the deformed Pinhead’s and they contributed another layer to the human tragedy of being ‘different’. Kevin Mooney was good as Porter/Belgian Policeman; Dee Gibney was crisp and regal as Princess Alexandra. Eoin O’Connell was suitably autocratic as Mr Gomm, and Brendan Corcoran was a ‘creeping Jesus’ of an oleaginous Bishop Walsham Howe.
Gerry Taylor’s lighting design was very good despite erratic hazer effects.
The Watergate has an excellent forward programme into January with Declan O’Rourke (24 Oct); Waiting For Godot (6 Nov); Brian Kennedy (7 Nov); Little Shop Of Horrors (12 to 14 Nov). On Tuesday 17th and Wednesday 18th, they have a new musical devised by Guna Nua Theatre Company and Mike Finn called The Unlucky Cabin Boy. On 3 December, they have A Country Christmas, which will sell out.
Waterford Music/Philippe Cassard
The French pianist Philippe Cassard rocked and attacked the keyboard in the Large Room City Hall, with a show of virtuoso confidence and splendid technique as his fingers caressed keys, leapt and pounded and drove the music out of the piano, with blurring finger and cross-handed action. He had last appeared in Waterford in 1991 after he won the first Guinness Peat Aviation Dublin Piano Competition. Back then he was described as having “a refined technique” with a “sure instinct for piano impressionism” and “fluid fingerwork”. On his first recital in New York, as part of his prize, he showed “moments of abandon” that gave hints of a “strong individual personality beneath the politesse that dominated the evening”.
On that occasion, he played Mozart’s Duport Variations and he delighted the Waterford audience this time with a brief but informative talk about his opening choices. Mozart came alive with a wonderfully soft and then loud dynamic variations. His Beethoven Six Variations in F major was glorious. The frivolous and flirtatious Mozart changed with a stately, sonorous beginning until he reached the dramatic and operatic passages where he became the “axe-man” and pounded the piano with the honky tonk Beethoven style that I love. The Mendelssohn Serieuses were written as part of a campaign to raise funds for a statue of Beethoven in Bonn. This was Mendelssohn ‘doing Beethoven’ and Cassard showed the virtuoso technique needed with its tentative and lyrical opening into the dramatic axe-attack, full of fury and aggressive percussion.
After the interval, it was one of the Schubert ‘Syphilis’ Sonatas, and I don’t think it could be better than the opening choices, but it was. Starting with a ‘Bang Bang’ attack, alternating with floral passages of delight. There was an elegiac sadness to the lonely, soft and lingering Andantino, and an Allegro Vivace was nostalgic like memories of holding hands in good times.
The final Rondo was an angry, hammering, emotional, agonised cry that he ‘softened’ with an encore of a Schubert Impromptu.
A Common Beauty
The Ann Martin exhibition in The Old Market House Arts Centre, A Common Beauty, is so much more impressive and the ‘common’ must refer to the inspiration all around the artist. These mostly watercolours are stunning and so detailed and teeming with life and interesting imagery that at times seemed crammed into the painting.
Some of the work is site specific to Dungarvan, even though the artist is American-born and living in Skibbereen, but she spent time sketching and assembling the host of images that people and populate her paintings. Sunday Brunch at The Tannery is crammed with detail: a child playing with a smartphone, a man sucking his fingers at a family party, an older woman in a blue paper party hat and a beautiful child looking out of the painting. Then, in Inside The Genoa Takeaway (an acrylic study), a guy in shorts has his head in an open pizza box, a cute child looks back and the woman beside her has a tattooed shoulder. In Metamorphosis, a young girl tries on a Communion dress in a room full of whitish blue dresses and it is about the changes in appearance and growing up.
Two large studies of a crowded rural town are so detailed and so impressive – Town Square and May Moon. The latter has so many incidents, congested traffic, narrow streets, children playing, a couple embracing, a man photographing the scene, a couple with luggage, a boy with a hurley, a giggle of school girls, gossips, a girl blowing gum bubbles, a shawlie and an old man with a shopping bag.
A pub study teems with life; a big dog entwined around the legs of a man standing at the bar child in arms, the server is pouring a drink into a cocktail glass. A study From Memory shows a young girl fiddler playing, an accordion lies on the floor, and an older fiddler seems to be assisting or passing on the tune, all from memory. Pier Road Schull shows a winter scene, bare branches, old cars, a solitary beer keg, and a mother and child venturing to cross the road.
Logan’s Oak is a complex study of a large oak that invites you to climb and hide, to be a child again and explore.
My favourite among favourites was Kiss and Tell, about a boy racer at the wheel of a car having done wheelies at a crossroads. The road is circled with tire residue, and his bored girlfriend sullenly sucks on a lollipop. Impress me. Go faster.
Exhibition runs until 31st October. See it and marvel.
New Ross Piano Festival
Finghin Collins got the 10th New Ross Piano Festival off to a splendid start at the Parish Church with a Beethoven Concerto with the RTE Concert Orchestra. The audience loved the lyrical and expansive work where the piano was gentle in the Largo and the orchestra had the majestic sweep of an autumnal breeze. There was a pleasing, almost dreamlike feeling, ending in a triumphant orchestral flourish. Cedric Tiberghien and Alexei Grynyuk impressed the audience with a Mendelssohn Concerto and a Scriabin Concerto in F sharp. Collins conducted and at the end the orchestra almost drowned out Grynyuk with a furious and dramatic closing Allegro.
The young and beautiful Olga Scheps, dressed in a sparkly green evening gown, presented a more evening programme for the Saturday noon Coffee Concert, but she wowed the audience with a Chopin set. Opening with Eric Sweeney’s Ros Tapestry premiere piece, Evening: The Lighthouse at Hook Head. This was beautiful with a gathering tone reminiscent of an incoming tide and a boat making for the shore, with a sense of urgency. The clang of a distant bell got gradually louder, insistent and intrusive and then the relief and tranquillity of safe harbour and a joyful arrival.
Scheps Rachmaninov Vocalise was familiar and beautifully melodic. There was elegance and nostalgia for a good tune. A Chopin Nocturne continued the elegance and beauty and there was a romantic centre in a Ballade Largo that allowed Scheps to sparkle. Her closing Chopin Sonata was so expressive, and the audience rose in acclamation. She deserved the two encores and could have had a third such was the ovation and appreciation.
The early evening concert saw Tiberghien show a more contemporary side with a Berg Concerto that had clattery tones and a sharp jazz feeling that slowed down to individual notes as if awakening from a dream. A dreamlike theme was emerging. A Mozart Sonata in C minor was busy and bothered with a splendid Adagio that was softly, softly into melancholy. Finghin Collins provided another McDreamy treat with three Schumann Fantasies that had gentle romantic passages, exciting playing and a reflective and tender section with a brilliant and triumphant closer. Alexei Grynyuk substituted a Schubert Sonata for the advertised Prokofiev, and while the Andantino was masterful, the sad Barcarolle tune got gloomier and gloomier.
The late concert was short and stark with the young Fidelio Trio performing Schoenberg’s Verklarte Nacht, that was competent but uninspiring.
On a glorious autumn morning, Daria van der Bercken charmed a Coffee Concert audience with a lively dance programme from Handel and Mozart. This was competent work and she excelled in an exploration of Mozart’s Fantasy in C minor Adagio. She was splendid with her Rondo Alla Turca and finished with a familiar Handel Chaconne, based on a Mexican ‘quick step’ but slowed down to a stately pace to suit European tastes.
The closing afternoon concert was a cracker. The Fidelio Trio excelled with the Beethoven Ghost Trio with bright, crisp exposition, an eerie and atmospheric Largo with the melancholic piano slowing down to fade. Alexei Grynyuk exploded into virtuoso life with the Stravinsky Three Movements from Petrouchka. This was showy with technically difficult passages, explosive percussion, attacking and amazing as he pounded out colourful musical images.
Finghin Collins and Cedric Tiberghien wowed the audience with a splendid and fun Brahms 21 Hungarian Dances for four hands. This was breathtaking technique and they switched over and wowed all over again.
What a splendid finish to a memorable Piano Festival.