Lives, loves, songs and lies

There is old-time, small-town humour and song on stage at the Abbey. What happened to the Billy Roche play, wonders Colin Murphy


Barbershop and music hall, suicide and rape. To listen to the Abbey's melodious ads for the current production of Billy Roche's 1993 play, The Cavalcaders, what would you think the play's about? “Lives, loves and songs” is the tagline on the programme and poster. Accordingly, the theatre is (half) full with an audience attracted by the promise of a nostalgia-fest, of a little old-time, small-town humour and song. They laugh at the lame jokes and clap at the lilting harmonies and music hall routines. And they're right to – comedy and music are the strengths of this production.


On the face of it, it seems to be about four mates working in an old cobblers shop: they sing together in a barbershop quartet, entering local competitions and rehearsing in the shop after hours; they fight and make up, keep secrets and confess, and sleep with each other's women, or whoever they can; they grow a bit older and move on. Time heals old wounds. We're left with a lilting melody, like a mildly melancholic musical. An image of cranes looms over the stage as the lights fade at the end. How we've changed. What was that tune again?


This play is beautifully produced, well staged, nicely sung. But there is another play, simmering underneath. In one of the final scenes, a flashback, 22-year-old Nuala and her 40-something lover, Terry, are talking love. She: “Sometimes I feel a bit ashamed of the things I ask you to do to me.” He: “I'd do anything you want, as long as you don't ask me to hurt you.” She: “You'll do that anyway.” At the time of this scene, we know that Nuala has subsequently killed herself, some time after Terry brutally broke up with her. Nostalgia? This should be eviscerating.


In Roche's play, the comedy and songs are a constant counterpoint to the lies, hurt, betrayals and emptiness that afflict its characters. Terry and his long-time friend, Josie, had sex with (or raped) Terry's aunt one night long ago. Terry's wife ran off with his best friend. Terry is having a clandestine affair with the young woman who works in the shop across the road, who is borderline depressive and ultimately kills herself. Ted and Rory are the two younger cobblers, also best friends: Ted is having an affair with Rory's wife.


This is all in the script, and so it is all on stage – but only barely so. The director, Robin Lefevre, directed the original production of this in 1993. It is as if he is too close to the play, too ready to take its depth and its darkness as read, content to play it for its clever ensemble work and surface beauty, and assume that the murky depths will be visible.


Stephen Brennan, in the lead role of Terry, lets the play largely pass him by. It mostly unfolds in flashback, as Terry stands in the shop he once ran, which is about to be refurbished, and looks into the corners for his memories. The older Terry is silent, brooding, sad; a distant but sympathetic figure. But Brennan takes this characterisation with him into the flashback scenes, and so the play becomes steeped in sympathy. When Terry turns violent, briefly, it seems out of kilter, and when his young lover, Nuala, gets upset, she is too easily dismissed as hysterical. It doesn't ring true.


The acting is good, particularly John Kavanagh as Josie, David Ganly as Ted and Simone Kirby as Nuala, the songs, mostly by Billy Roche, are gorgeous, and the set, by Alan Farquharson, is striking and cleverly engineered. The production makes for a grand show. But there might be a great play underneath it.

Billy Roche's The Cavalcaders continues at the Abbey until 19 May 2007. Picture above by Colm Hogan