The End of the Beginning - Review

The title’s Irish, to start with. How can there be an end before a beginning? It’s a clue to the reversal of the norm, the expectation confounded, an inversion of the natural order: and it’s the point of Sean O’Casey’s comedy. Then there’s the balladeer singing in the bar as the audience wait to take their seats upstairs. Patrick Hannigan sang his lilting Irish folk tunes to the gentle accompaniment of clinking glasses and everyone joined in the chorus of Molly Malone. We could have been in Dublin. In fact, we were in Bedford Place, Brighton, to celebrate the opening of The Theatre Upstairs in The New Venture Theatre.

The play was a marvellous choice to launch theatre in the brand new spaces upstairs. Like all the best comedies, it is rooted in comprehension of character, and, like all the best comedies, it is not an entirely comfortable experience. My husband wriggled with recognition as Darry overwound the clock, hit it to make it go again and admired his biceps in the mirror. Do I quote that ‘ men just work ‘til set of sun whilst woman’s work is never done’? Probably.

Darry, irritated with his wife Lizzie, bets he can do her job better than she could do his. Mowing the meadow? Child’s play. You try cooking, washing, feeding the pigs, and managing the household. Telling Darry not to forget the heifer which slips its halter, Lizzie stomps out. Darry practises calisthenics to a hilarious keepfit record for the doubtful benefit of local crumpet until his singing friend Barry appears with a mandolin. Both men are equally inept and Barry can’t see, with or without his spectacles. Disaster piles upon disaster and a fine mess they get each other into before a grand finale when the heifer, tied to a rope through the chimney, heaves Darry off his legs and up into the stack.

Director Rod Lewis first saw the play in German whilst working in Berlin more than twenty years ago. He thought it was one of the funniest shows he had ever seen – and he didn’t speak German. There is a great deal of silent mime as Darry struts about in his braces, alone on stage, trying to exercise his torso or wash up and failing in both. Des Potton is sublimely inept, an Oliver Hardy figure of macho uselessness yet somehow infinitely touching and vulnerable. His Stan Laurel sidekick manages rather better with the gymnastics and rather worse with the dishes in a sidesplittingly funny performance by Carl Boardman. And then, just as any woman would write the pair of them off completely, they sing a charming duet ‘ Down where the bees are humming’, accompanying themselves on the mandolin. Men, says O’Casey, may not be much use in the kitchen – but they can make your heart sing when they want to.

Meanwhile, comic tension grows as we await Lizzie’s return. We guess the meadow will be perfectly mown, offstage. Anticipating Lizzie’s reactions to the chaos, in a Casey coup de theatre, is largely left to our imagination and the curtain comes down, metaphorically, in The Theatre Upstairs. Poor Janice Jones, more than a match for Darry or Barry, has to be shrill and competent, yet we love her independence and her feisty courage. Her stance might not seem so heroic today, but Sean O’Casey wrote the play in 1937, in a rural Ireland where gender roles were written in stone. Is Lizzie a metaphor for Ireland itself, in those days of bitter struggles for national identity and freedom? Even if she doesn’t represent a nation, she does stand for a sex oppressed by tradition and prejudice, something beautifully represented by Janice Jones in a performance both touching, tough and funny.

Huge credit to the creative team under the clever direction of Rod Lewis: the vintage set in particular was memorable for Bakelite props, and lace antimacassars (who remembers those?) Another round of applause for dialect coach Paddy O’Keeffe; I would never have known that Des Potton, Carl Boardman and Janice Jones were not native Dubliners, a ruse highlighted by their clever Gaelic-ised names in the theatre programme. Manager Pat Boxall clearly overcame all the inevitable hiccups of a first night in a new theatre and the production looked as smooth as a swan gliding across a lake - if it was paddling furiously underneath, none of us in the audience would have known. Besides, we were laughing fit to burst.

Afterwards, there was Irish music off stage as Louise Wells and Adam Mould played the fiddle and the bodhram in the bar. Let’s be having yous, then.

by Louise Schweitzer