Theatre times: ‘Jimmy’s Hall’

On Wednesday evening I attended ‘Jimmy’s Hall’ in the Abbey Theatre.

I purchased the tickets six months ago, not knowing anything about the play- aside from the fact that the true story was an adaptation from a 2014 film by Ken Loach. As ‘early bird’ tickets were available for ten euros, for the Saturday night Dublin preview (the play had already had its world premiere shows in Leitrim a week earlier), I booked a pair of front row seats. Saturday in the Abbey, darling. Sure what else you would be doing?

Festering in my pit, one Saturday morning, some weeks ago, I received a call from the box office.  Apparently the stage was larger than anticipated, meaning my front row preview seats were  no longer available – in fact my front row no longer existed. Would I be interested in swapping them for full price tickets during the run – at no extra cost to myself? My answer was swift, and in the affirmative.

As we entered the auditorium, the cast of thirteen was already on stage jamming. Dressed in 1930s style costumes, they were playing instruments and singing songs from the 1980s – ‘I wanna dance with somebody’ by Whitney Houston, and ‘Rainy night in Soho’ by the Pogues, among them.

When the play properly begins, we learn that the lead character of Jimmy Gralton (Richard Clements) is returning to Leitrim in 1932,  after a decade spent in New York, following the Irish Civil War. A few years into the Great Depression, he is fired up with communist fervour, wanting economic and social justice for the poor farmers and families in Leitrim.  He reopens the ‘Hall’ – a shed on his own plot of land, where young people used to gather to  sing, dance, exchange ideas and discuss politics.

However this is the new Ireland – ruled by DeValera. A year after the Eucharistic Congress in Dublin (where 25% of the entire population gathered to celebrate their religion, in a massive display of heterosexual devotion),  independent thought was frowned upon – particularly thoughts that criticised church control of politics and the law; and church ownership of land.

Father Sheridan (Bosco Hogan) and fascist Blueshirt (Donal O’Kelly) warn our hero that his days are numbered. He is defiant in the face of the church and politicians, having no time for DeValera’s new Ireland where catholicism reigns supreme. This attitude – along with his dangerous American jazz records – will not be tolerated. Thanks to his shiny new, American passport he soon became the first and only Irish citizen ever to be deported from his own country.

It was an enjoyable and entertaining play, well told with an interesting plot. That said I had some minor issues with it.

Mainly because of the compulsory D.R.O.P.S.

As a nation, Ireland has a brutal and tragic history. Therefore it is not possible to have a play set in any point in time that does not deal in some form with D.R.O.P.S.

Depression, Repression, Oppression, Poverty and Suffering are essential elements when discussing any period of Irish history. This is unavoidable, I know. The alternative acronym for this condition – P.R.O.D.S – is far too controversial to use.

After last year’s orgy of national self-reflection and congratulation (the centenary of the 1916 Rising) perhaps I was simply not ready for another post mortem on the national identity. We must not forget the past. I understand this. But are we not allowed to ignore it, at least occasionally?

The music and sets were convincing – the corrugated, iron roof of the hall instantly recognisable to anyone who grew up outside the city.

The acting was of a high standard – with such a large cast it is hard to single out any one performance.  The dialogue felt a little preachy on occasion – this is not down to the actors. It was as if they had a certain number of worthy issues to reference and weren’t going anywhere until these had been processed.

Lisa Lambe as Oonagh (Jimmy’s love interest) gave a strong performance and has a good singing voice. I think she stood out more than most – partly because of her voice; partly because of the massive head of ginger hair (wig?) she was sporting.

Muiris Crowley (as Oonagh’s husband Sean) tore up the stage during the dances – fleet and light footed. He was definitely the highlight of the ensemble dance scenes.  It made me appreciate Diarmaid Murtagh’s clunkier dance style even more, as that reminded me of myself. Brid Ni Neachtain gave a moving performance as Jimmy’s mother Alice – particularly when he is being forced to leave the country and she sings her sorrow. One tiny detail (and it may simply have been the lighting) but it looked like she was wearing fake tan on her legs. Perhaps this was all the rage for Leitrim Mammies in the 1930s, but I am unconvinced.

The most impressive scene is heart-stopping, where they dance while the hall is being attacked. The finale is both sad and uplifting.

I joined in with the standing ovation at the end. While it is an impressive show with convincing music and cast, I didn’t think it quite merited this reaction. I stood to allow me to see the cast’s faces – joyous at the reaction.

Adapted from Paul Laverty’s film script ‘Jimmy’s Hall’ is directed by Graham McLaren. It is showing Monday to Saturday at 7.30pm, on the Abbey stage until 19th August.

Recommended ****



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