A ship from 1830s Limerick, The Francis Spaight, sails again in Guna Nua's new musical. The demise of an unlucky cabin boy is part of local folklore but its tragedy resonates beyond the City of Culture.
Lime Tree Theatre, Limerick City of Culture
My review of The Unlucky Cabin Boy coming up just as soon as I have a tumble with a hefty maid from Kilmallock ...
The Ireland left behind by The Francis Spaight when it sailed for New Brunswick in 1835 may have been making political leeway under the Drummond administration and advancing in industry with developments such as the Wellesley Bridge in Limerick opening up new trade. Regardless, this was the decade anticipating the Great Famine; many people had little choice between queuing for the workhouse or for the next ship sailing across the Atlantic. As a whole, it's a tough world for a teenage boy to make a stake for his manhood.
The tale of Patrick O'Brien, the cabin boy aboard The Francis Spaight, is a part of Limerick folklore and now realised in a new musical directed by Paul Meade for Gúna Nua. It chronicles O'Brien's journey to rise above poverty, leaving the workhouse to work at sea, later shipwrecked and met a grizzly demise, ie. eaten by his crew mates.
Historical accuracies animate rather than instruct in Mike Finn's wonderful book, relaying the antics, recipes and songs of the period, while dialogue often carries the wafting piety spirited by Daniel O'Connell's Catholic Emancipation. However, it is the suspension of Christian morality that haunts this production, especially in the folksy music of David Blake's score. When the Francis Spaight upends on sea, we realise just how far we are from the laws of God or man.
The pliability of Colm McNally's wooden set is to take us from a destitute workhouse, through a tatty tavern and onto the deck of a ship rigged to sail. Kevin Shackleton plays the cabin boy in an impassioned turn, and Enda Kilroy is risible as a bristly sea captain. The wider cast including the charming Damien Devaney and steely Susannah De Wrixton play multiple roles that constantly make the stage feel populated. Even the band, The Brad Pitt Light Orchestra, often descend from the musicians' stand to become players in the drama, with Ann Blake's grotesque barmaid serving diabolical cocktails and James Blake's cruel seaman akin to a ruthless pirate.
It doesn't resemble the cosmopolitan musical, which from vaudevillian beginnings in ragtime jazz evolved with equal primacy towards dance and drama. Nor is it simply a play with songs; Cathal Synott's musical direction uses melodies to underscore the action, musicalising the drama. With little there is of an Irish musical theatre tradition, David Blake's score appropriately takes inspiration from the old music hall, as folk ballads are often sung with harmonies and spare accompaniment from guitar, bass and mandolin. There is a eagerness to experiment too, as a lightning storm is conjured by electric strains more in line with rock music. Undoubtedly, the music is most powerful in group numbers, especially in a choral arrangement where the locals wish farewell to The Francis Spaight as it leaves Limerick, unfolding a prayer to protect the life-risking seamen.
The production doesn't sustain as well in the second half, when Angie Smalis' movement direction runs out at the same time as the audience's guesses as to what happens next. But in bringing the stage to a standstill, Meade's staging seems set for a respectful farewell. A choir enter for a finale dedicated entirely to song, as the memory of a tragic local is sweetly preserved. Yet there is something wider to lament here too. In presenting Patrick O'Brien's death as a perversion of the Eucharist, the eating of the body and blood of Christ, the tragedy is a precursor to many youths who in the next 100 years would be oppressed by Catholic customs such as incarceration in Magdalene Laundries and industrial schools. It's a sad discovery of another child who society failed to protect.
What did everybody else think?