Picoreview: Donegal

I was invited last week to see the Abbey Theatre‘s new play, Donegal, which is billed as a light-hearted play with music.

I think the Irish have a different idea of what constitutes ‘light-hearted’ than I do.

I mean, nobody dies in it, and there are moments that are funny, so I think that’s why it qualifies as ‘light-hearted’. But the play is about an Irish country-western star whose peak has passed, her son who left Ireland to very successfully pursue his own country-western career in America away from his mother’s shadow, and the rest of their absolutely horrible family, who are all in the business of supporting Mama’s Career, which has tanked, and now they’re all broke and desperate and vicious (although clearly the vicious isn’t new, it’s part of how the family interacts, and I don’t think that’s funny at all) and have asked The Successful Son to come home and save them all despite them being utterly nasty pieces of work.

The play is well-acted and well-sung, with the glaring exception of The American Girlfriend, who had a lovely voice but was not, I’m quite certain, Actually American. My impression was that her struggle to maintain the American accent left her unable to accomplish anything else. I have mixing spoons that are less wooden. I felt badly for her because I suspect she’s a quite capable performer under different circumstances. Her lines were also badly written: they sounded like an Irish person trying to write an American and not quite succeeding. I was mentally revising them for her as she spoke. (I’m also not actually convinced she knew all of her lines cold. There were some that were so awkward that they sounded ad-libbed.)

Killian Donnelly, the Successful Son, has one of the most beautiful voices I’ve ever had the pleasure of listening to, and would have been even more splendid if the sound balance had been better. Unfortunately, during a Key Song, in which Much Is Revealed, I could barely hear him, much less understand him. The pieces where there was less or no accompaniment, though, wow. Not just him, but the whole cast: wow. But him especially.

About three quarters of the way through the play, Successful Son sings an absolutely heart-rending Irish folk song called “My Donegal,” and I thought, “Ah. This is why this play exists. Somebody has recently written a truly beautiful song and wanted a vehicle to present it through.”

I don’t know if that’s true, but it certainly seemed like it. “My Donegal” and the two or three other trad songs were far and away the best *music* in the show. The rest of it seemed to me to fail to understand what Irish country-western music is/was (it is, in my experience, very like older American country-western music) as well as being unable to capture what current American country music is. It didn’t feel like it was *deliberately* bad, which would have been a valid stylistic choice in terms of the play, but rather that the songwriter didn’t know the genres well enough to do them justice. (It’s possible they *were* deliberately bad, and that the performers were good enough to elevate them beyond the deliberate badness, but not into actual goodness.)

So: a superb performance of a not-very-good show. I don’t think I’d go so far as to recommend it, although I would really *love* to get a single of “My Donegal,” which really is a magnificent song.

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