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The Colleen Bawn review at Lyric Theatre, Belfast – ‘hilarious and celebratory’

Jo Donnelly, Cavan Clarke and Bryan Quinn in The Colleen Bawn at the Lyric Theatre, Belfast. Photo: Steffan Hill
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Dion Boucicault’s rowdy melodrama The Colleen Bawn is a disaster waiting to happen. It is a rambunctious whirlwind of a thing, in which a collection of unruly characters embarks upon a catalogue of misunderstandings, misdemeanours and mistaken identities.

Based on the real-life murder of a young girl in 1819, this stylised depiction of the classic stage Irishman is enclosed in a close-knit rural community, where the wily locals are hell bent on putting one over on their aristocratic masters. In spite of the distaste directed towards such work by the literary elite of the time, this is a skilfully structured example of contemporary popular entertainment, which makes great purchase out of the language issue still dominating Northern Ireland politics.

Director Lisa May gleefully stamps her trademark style of physical expressionism upon proceedings. Hopping and skipping along to Matthew Reeve’s delightful score and within the tight framework of Grace Smart’s handsome set, the plot charts the helter skelter escapades of hard-up landowner Hardess Cregan (Cavan Clarke), his servant Danny Mann (Patrick McBrearty), his secret wife Eily (Maeve Smyth) – the unschooled colleen bawn (fair-haired girl) of the title – an over-romantic heiress Anne Chute (Colette Lennon) and an eloquent peasant philosopher Myles-na-Coppaleen (Bryan Quinn), the play’s moral compass.

The ensemble cast cuts loose on a script rich in local vernacular while nimbly navigating Jennifer Rooney’s complex choreography. If the first act feels a little overworked, the interval unleashes a darkly hilarious dénouement in which not a step nor a nod nor a knowing wink feels out of place.

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Mischief, mayhem and a dash of the hard stuff make for a celebratory revival of a melodramatic masterpiece