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The Theatreguide.London Review

The Shaughraun
Albery Theatre      Summer 2005

Dion Boucicault's 1874 play is a good old-fashioned cheer-the-hero-hiss-the-villain melodrama seasoned with lots of Irish wit and humour. It is such a good play that even this not-quite-perfect production from Dublin's Abbey Theatre is a load of fun.

Some may remember the National Theatre's production of 1988 that proved that, even though some elements of the play are inevitably dated and cliched (The villain really does hold the mortgage to the old homestead and lech after the heroine), if played full out, without apologies or embarrassment, its inherent theatrical power comes through.

And the one flaw in this revival is that director John McColgan doesn't seem to have fully trusted the material Boucicault gave him, and wavers between playing it straight, camping it up and embarrassedly rushing through some of the more purple passages.

As a result, the comic sections are generally more successful than the melodramatic ones, though the whole remains more fun and entertaining than its weakest parts.

Never one to skimp, Boucicault actually gives us three heroes, two heroines and a nasty baddie with a comic sidekick.

The villain has stolen the Irish family estate and gotten the young man transported to an Australian prison while he pursues the boy's fiancee. Meanwhile, the boy's sister has attracted the attentions of a handsome officer of the local British garrison.

The third hero is the shaughraun (roughly, shaw-khrawn) or vagabond, the village ne'er-do-well whose good heart and high spirits make everyone forgive his frequent brushes with law and propriety.

The plot centres on the brother's return from Australia, the bad guy's new plots against him, and everyone else's attempts to foil them, but it has time for romance, English-Irish culture clash jokes, and set pieces like the rowdy Irish wake for the thought-to-be-dead shaughraun.

And all these lighter elements play delightfully, carrying the play happily over some of the rougher passages. Two of the heroes are dashing and the third jolly, the villain is appropriately despicable, the two girls turn out to be quite a bit feistier than we might have expected, and the Irishness is laid on thick enough to satisfy anyone.

So it's only a small disappointment that moments the author (and original audiences) clearly wanted to be tear-jerking or gasp-inducing - like the convict's reunion with the old priest who raised him, or his re-arrest at the moment things seemed to be going right - don't quite come off, because the director evidently didn't trust them.

And that wake scene loses some of the power it could have had from a blend of tragic (the shaughraun's mother really is grieving) and comic (we know he's alive).

As the title character, Don Wycherley has an amiable presence and a nice way with the throwaway joke. Fiona O'Shaughnessy brings a sly sexiness to the sister, and Rory Keenan and Stephen Darcy are appropriately manly as Englishman and brother.

Stephen Brennan isn't quite camp enough as the moustache-twirling baddie, though David Pearse as his cowardly aide and Anita Reeves as the shaughraun's Irish-as-can-be mother add a lot to the fun.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of The Shaughraun - Albery Theatre 2005
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