Rough Magic - Hitting the right frequency

Arthur O'Riordan was struggling with his new play. “I need a song where a Nobel physicist is anxious to get his leg over”, he thought.


Improbable FrequencyIt's probably safe to say that O'Riordan was charting new territory in Irish drama. He was writing a musical set in Dublin about Irish neutrality during the Second World War, featuring the characters of an innocent-abroad English spy, the poet John Betjeman, the scientist Erwin Schrödinger and Flann O'Brien.  It took him almost as long as the war itself, four years, and the result was an improbably titled piece called Improbable Frequency, which premiered at the Dublin Theatre Festival in 2004.

Despite the fact that people were “very bemused” on hearing what he was writing, the musical went on to win three Irish Times theatre awards, including best production and best director for Rough Magic's Lynne Parker, who had commissioned the piece. It played at the Abbey in early 2005 and thereafter, attention focussed on putting a tour together. After a successful run in Edinburgh and a visit to Poland, an Irish tour is now underway. With just over ?150,000 from the Arts Council's new “Touring Experiment”, Rough Magic is taking their musical across the country for six weeks into December. It's well-deserved exposure. O'Riordan's script, with music by Bell Helicopter, is one of the wittiest, most original, most entertaining pieces of theatre in recent years. O'Riordan cites the classic “wordplay merchants” of Noel Coward and Gilbert & Sullivan as influences, as well as the classic Broadway musicals, and those that “twisted the genre a bit”, such as Stephen Sondheim. In his own words, “the play is about a young English code breaker sent over to Ireland (in 1941) to investigate suspicious messages on a radio programme”. And as is typical of the noir genre, which is also an influence, “he gets embroiled in much more than he bargained for”. Betjeman and Schrödinger were in Dublin at the time – the former was reputed to be a British spy – and O'Riordan worked these into what he happily describes as “a fairly convoluted plot”.

“It's a sideways look at the fraught relationship between Ireland and England”, he says, “poking fun at the sacred cow of Irish neutrality.

“The Second World War is such a pivotal event – so much heroism, so much evil – yet here in Ireland the Spring Show went on despite ‘disturbances abroad'. That's intrinsically funny.” Or as his cast sings, “It's a formula for all occasions,/But lately it's come to the fore,/There's not many folk can pull off the bold stroke/Of ignoring the Second World War.”

And that particular chorus concludes with an acerbic inversion of Oscar Wilde, “we're all in the gutter/But some of us have an ear to the ground”.