Review: Frank McGuinness' Donegal

Killian Donnolly as Jackie Day and Siobhan McCarthy as his mother Irene 

The Abbey Theatre presented the world premiere of Frank McGuinness’s musical play Donegal last night – and the world should check it out whenever it passes by.

A free-flowing blend of family drama, homage to Ireland's fourth biggest county and country music, the play shows that inherent Irish propensity of laughing and singing when things are going pear-shaped all around us.

Jackie Day (Killian Donnelly) has been asked by his father Conor (Frank Laverty) to come back from the States where has been a highly successful country singer to help the family businesses survive in austerity-hit Donegal. Jackie’s mother, Irene (Siobhan McCarthy), is also a country singer but she is Philomena Begley to Jackie’s Garth Brooks, times have changed and Irene can’t even attract a crowd in Monaghan while just one of Jackie’s songs could save the family from ruination.

But the situation of course opens up the floodgates for the bitterness to flow through.

McGuinness has created nine vividly drawn characters that will live long in the memory in spite of, or maybe because of the fact none of them are particularly likeable.

The matriarch of the family, Magdalene Carolan (Deirdre Donnelly) is a mixture of Lady Bracknell and Blackadder with bile for blood running through her veins and some of that has been inherited by her daughter Irene, who hated her own son Jackie since she discovered his voice was more beautiful than her’s.

Irene’s sister Triona (Ruth McGill) walks around the stage like a lizard, ready to pounce on a grievance to feed on. Her husband Liam is full of shame that he cannot conceive a child.

Jackie’s “girlfriend” LIza (Megan Riordan) is an American out of her depth in the deep waters of Irish familial animosity who earns Magdalen’s disapproval.

“Madam, your week’s wash wouldn’t be overloaded.” she scowls.

Eleanor Methven is brilliant as the unmarried sister and veteran actor John Kavanagh’s Hugo is a witty foil for Magdalen.

It is wonderfully subversive of McGuinness that he can get an audience to howl with laughter at the verbal butchery going on on stage and that we can empathise with the deeply flawed characters on stage because we see some of our own faults in them.

The tenth star of the show is, of course, the music, both that written by Four Men and a Dog’s Kevin Doherty, and the folk songs that we sang before we were Country ’n’ Irish-ed, including The Minstrel Boy, The West’s Awake and Carrickfergus.

The songs happened at all the right times, fitting into the play like fingers into a glove, from the opening At My Mother’s Grave (seriously) to the showstopper, the eponymous Donegal.

A hugely entertaining play that is about more than just one family, Donegal runs at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin until 19 November. Box office: +353 1 878 7222.

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