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The M Boat
Published on Tuesday, 17 May 2011

5 stars

The Eagle Bar
14-15, 17-21 May, 8:30pm-10:00pm
Reviewed by Catherine Meek

 Suitable for age 15+ only.

This wonderful show is a panoply of entertainment: it takes in storytelling round a campfire, popular folk songs accompanied by five-stringed banjo (not to mention some of the audience), a comedic troupe of likeable rustic characters and a naïve love story… all told in a quintessentially Irish lilt. And, to this rich mix of ingredients, add Guinness as a bit player!

The play was inspired by writer-director Eddie Alford’s father’s stories of working as a clerk at the brewery in the 1950s, when barrels of Guinness would be transported to Shannon by barge. Our troupe undertakes this journey and performs these adventures. Their story unfolds in true theatrical fashion whilst, curiously, a lighthearted air of public-house music and song is retained, a rare mix which works very well.

The stage is sparse: only the odd stool and a screen at the back - slides projected onto it conjure the setting of each scene, a simple yet effective device. Right from the start, there’s a clue that what is lacking in set will be made up in performance: as the seats fill up, a teenaged Liam (Greg Cranness) is unmistakeably sitting by a rustic towpath, skimming imaginary pebbles into the water. The audience might not be on his radar as he smiles to himself, contented, at his better throws; by the same token we might expect really to hear the plop of the stone as it hits the water, so skilled is his mime.

As anticipated, Cranness’s acting is superb. He pulls off the naivety of Liam without depriving the character of credibility, so that he is a properly three-dimensional young lad, and does not degenerate into foolish stereotype.

All of the cast are engaging in character, some of them acting two or three parts. Fay Greenhalgh is confident as a young Fiona all dressed up, bow in hair, flirtatiously cadging a cigarette from Liam down by the Canal, and equally convincing as headscarfed old mother Bridie telling her stories round the campfire. Abi Hills switches with ease from the pencil skirted smart clerk who “interviews” Liam for a job on the barge, to Paddy, a boilersuited member of the motley crew.

It's not clear from the programme who devised the costumes, but mention must be made; as an "impecunious" fresh company they presumably made the most of what they had, to greater effect. It's probably not easy these days to wear flat caps and make then seem typical rather than parody, but this troupe carries it off.

It was an overwhelming night for writer and director Eddie Alford: first, ticket sales exceeded expectation and more chairs had to be brought in; then, the end the play brought the house down with an applause beyond his dreams. It’s surely not for the last time though. Go on, join in the fun. It’s highly recommended.

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These are archived reviews of shows from Brighton 2011.  We keep our archives online as a courtesy to performers, and for readers who'd like to research previous years' reviews.