A Man of No Importance [Union Theatre]

A Man of No Importance
Music by Stephen Flaherty, lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, book by Terrence McNally, based on Barry Devlin’s 1994 screenplay of the same name [European premiere]

Alfie – Paul Clarkson
Carney – Paul Monaghan
Robbie – Patrick Kelleher
Adele – Róisin Sullivan
Lily – Joanna Nevin
Baldy – Anthony Cable
Father Kenny – A. J. O’Neill
Breton Beret – Dieter Thomas
Sully O’Hara / Bus Driver – Barra Collins
Mrs Patrick – Nicola Redman
Ernie Lally – Jamie Honeybourne
Mrs Grace – Emily Juler
Rasher Flynn – Daniel Maguire
Miss Crowe – Ruth Berkeley
Peter / Policemen / Carson – Niall Sheehy
Mrs Curtin – Kimberley Ensor
Monsignor – Adam Davenport

The Band: Chris Peake – Musical Director, Patrick Kelliher (bodhran), Nicola Redman (flute), Barra Collins (guitar), Dieter Thomas (penny whistle), and Joanna Nevin & Carole Carpenter (violins)

Ben De Wynter – Director
James Turner – Designer
Steve Miller – Lighting Designer
Phyllida Crowley-Smith – Choreographer

Reviewed by: Michael Darvell

Reviewed: 15 November, 2009
Venue: Union Theatre, Union Street, Southwark, London SE1

Suri Krishnamma’s 1994 film “A Man of No Importance”, with a screenplay by Barry Devlin, is set in 1963 and stars Albert Finney, Brenda Fricker, Michael Gambon, Tara Fitzgerald and Rufus Sewell. Finney played Dublin bus conductor Alfie Byrne, noted for regaling his passengers with readings from Oscar Wilde and for staging productions of Wilde’s plays by his church ‘am-dram’ group, in particular “The Importance of Being Earnest”. The film of “A Man of No Importance” was described as “an extraordinary tale of an ordinary hero.” Fair enough. It is about someone who has not done anything of much significance with his life except pursue his interest in amateur theatre. He has never had any sort of intimate relationship, as he can’t quite come to terms with his sexuality.

Remember it is 1963, many years before the legalisation of homosexuality, so Alfie (Paul Clarkson) is a closeted Irish Catholic gay man with no experience of sex of any sort. However, he has an unrequited passion for his fellow-worker, bus driver Robbie (Patrick Kelliher), and he goes so far as calling him ‘Bosie’, after Wilde’s famous one-time partner, and even offers him cucumber sandwiches – a very Wildean touch. However, he keeps Robbie at a distance, knowing full well that he will never share the same feelings that Alfie has for him. They are good friends and that is all. When Alfie tries to have illicit sex with another man, he is beaten up for his pains. His only aim is to sublimate his true feelings by staging Wilde’s “Salome”. In his search for a leading lady, the Princess Salome, he discards his usual repertory company of aging housewives for Adele (Róisin Sullivan), a new passenger on his bus. However, his theatrical plans are scuppered when “Salome” is thought to be a “dirty play” and his leading man, Herod, played by Carney the local butcher (Paul Monaghan), walks out of the production.

It’s an uphill fight for Alfie who, in middle age, is a closeted homosexual still living with his sister Lily (Joanna Nevin), who never stops trying to find her brother a girlfriend. Lily closes her eyes to everything including the nature of her own brother’s feelings and, when Alfie endeavours to spice up their home-cooked meals, she definitely will not eat anything foreign such as Curry or Spaghetti Bolognese. Alfie feels trapped in his humdrum domestic life. Although he’s never laid a finger on anybody, male or female, at least in the course of the play he comes to realise his true feelings and which side he is batting for.

It’s a touching if not always quite believable story and the makers of the stage-musical version have probably improved on the film and its whimsicality. The elements of fantasy such as the appearances of Oscar Wilde can be handled better in the already heightened artificiality of a musical. If not particularly memorable, Stephen Flaherty’s score has an Irish lilt to it, albeit reminiscent in parts of other music-theatre composers such as Sondheim and Jerry Herman with shades of “Billy Eliot” and Howard Goodall’s “The Hired Man”, more working-class heroes. There are some moving solo ballads such as ‘Man in the Mirror’, ‘Love Who You Love’ and ‘Welcome to the World’, although the company as a whole fares better in ‘Going Up’, ‘The Streets of Dublin’ and the title song. There is a particularly evocative song in ‘The Cuddles Mary Gave’, sung by Alfie’s old friend Baldy. However, when Alfie goes looking for cuddles in an effort to find a little human warmth, he lands himself in trouble. However, the piece ends on an upbeat note in the style of Fellini’s “Notte di Cabiria” or the later musical version thereof, “Sweet Charity”.

The musical version of the 1994 film dates from 2002 when it was premiered at Lincoln Center in New York with Roger Rees and Faith Prince and, although not entirely successful, it won an Outer Critics’ Circle Award for Best Off-Broadway Musical. The cast album was released in 2003 and the show was staged in Toronto in 2008 and is due to be revived in Nyack, New York State this month (November 2009) as well as receiving this European premiere in London.

At the Union if Paul Clarkson’s Alfie is a tad too ‘Oirish’-sounding for comfort, then he’s not alone in a cast that includes several Irish players. He does bring a certain charisma to the part of Alfie, making him rather more than just a man of no importance. Paul Monaghan as Carney the butcher is a strong presence, Joanna Nevin’s Lily, Alfie’s sister, is cut from a very strict, God-fearing Catholic upbringing, but the part of Adele is underwritten and barely gives Róisin Sullivan a chance. However, the cast of other assorted characters are well-drawn by the company members who throw themselves into the singing and dancing. There is much good humour in the piece and some nice jokes such as the ladies of the chorus coming up with suitable ways of doing Salome’s infamous ‘Dance of the Seven Veils’ including the use of zippers! Ben De Wynter’s production is well-paced and enhanced by some evocative designs by James Turner, who captures well the spirit of the ‘am-dram’ mentality. Chris Peake’s band provides a substantial backing.

  • A Man of No Importance is at the Union Theatre in Southwark until Saturday 5 December 2009
  • Tuesday to Saturday at 7.30 p.m., matinees every Sunday and on Saturdays 21 & 28 November at 3 p.m.
  • Bookings on 020 7261 9876

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