Michael McDonagh didn’t let anachronisms spoil the fun at the Beck Theatre in Hayes
Ireland’s Call is a romantic romp in song and dance through the 1ate 1940s, 1950s and early 1960s following the well worn trail of Emigration. In this fast paced easy going production we are introduced to the lead characters young Sean Dempsey (Mike Burr) and his love Cora McGowan (Shauna Barry) who meet, not quite dancing at the crossroads of De Valera’s bucolic cosseted idyll, but at a village country dance near New Ross.
At a typical rural ‘dance’, in a parish hall where Cora teaches Irish, Sean and his friends come to meet the girls under the watchful eye of the curate and parish priest. Simple innocent stuff, just as Dev would have wanted, with the arms of the girls glued rigidly and modestly to their sides. We all know now Dev’s ‘dream’ for Ireland had no economic relevance to the world at that time, forcing all the young Seans, and thousands of young Coras, to leave home to find work abroad. The stage setting features some basic back projection of images of Ireland and archive news footage.
The story is informally and comically narrated by the Parish Priest (Ged Graham), who communicates in asides to the packed audience in a chatty humorous style that almost makes this a kind of Irish pantomime.
He is supported in his task by a very talented, excellent ensemble of Irish dancers, well choreographed by Liane Stubbs and Aaron James, who represent the villagers at home, or the patrons of the Crown pub in Cricklwood, where our hero Sean ends up, having found a job digging roads.
As Sean leaves Ireland on his travels the jovial and portly parish priest (Ged Graham) channels both Brendan Grace and the late Barney McKenna to tell us about how before he was a priest he was in the Spanish Civil war and had an eye for the ladies himself, breaking into song.
At this point I thought the song would be something from the period maybe Percy French or perhaps Maggie or When You Were Sweet Sixteen. I was somewhat surprised when instead he gave us a rousing version of Galway Girl, a song written and popularised by American Steve Earle and Sharron Shannon in 2000, some fifty years later than the time the priest was describing.
No matter, why let historical accuracy get in the way of a good yarn, and his up-tempo beat did have the audience clapping along. They loved it. We find Sean drinking in the Crown in Cricklewood, an excuse to give us more dance routines and songs from the great Irish songbook.
This starts off with Ged Graham giving us Hot Asphalt, originally brought to us by Luke Kelly and the Dubliners in about 1979, so now we are only 30 years adrift.
We are told that the priest’s look-alike brother is a Captain in the NYPD who will sponsor Sean in America so Sean is given a leaving party before he departs Southampton in 1949 on a ship for America.
This, of course, involves the full cast of singers and dancers and ends with a huge audience singalong starting with Molly Malone and including The Black Velvet Band and The Wild Rover.
The party, both on stage and in the seats, was well under way. A version of The Parting Glass sets the mood for the next scene: the arrival at USA Immigration on Ellis Island, where in 1892 the first immigrant processed was 17- year old Ann Moore, newly arrived from Cork. By the time it closed in 1954 about 17 million souls had been processed into the land of the free, a great many of them Irish.
It was not until the second half that the producers let the dancers ‘hard shoed’ feet do the talking and we could hear the vibrant organic sound of their talented taps on the stage floor. In the first half the pre-recorded dance clicks were too dominant in an overblown sound track, so it was good to hear and see the dancers perform more naturally.
The Beck audience also got a special treat when a troupe of young children from the local O’Connor Academy of Irish Dance made a guest appearance.
As promised, Sean gets his job with the NYPD and becomes like many Irishmen before him a New York cop, still exchanging love letters to Cora and hoping she will now join him. So as not to spoil it for you I will leave the narrative there as the action turns to the excitement and glamour of America in the 1950s, with the birth of rock n’ roll.
The dancers embrace these themes with enthusiasm and skill, providing the audience with more entertainment with a different spin from the Irish of the past.
But there is still another excuse for hand clapping audience participation and sing-alongs with favourites like Whiskey In The Jar, The Leaving Of Liverpool, Dirty Old Town and The Irish Rover.
In the second half it gets a bit more serious with some tragic moments but not enough sadness to spoil the party. Ged Graham, now playing the New York Police Captain brother of the Irish Priest, in the manner of Colm Wilkinson in Les Miserables, gives us a big-hearted version of Through the Eyes Of An Irishman.
Another notable solo in the second half is A Woman’s Heart convincingly performed by Cora (Shauna Barry).
The on stage fiddler and singer, Helena Gullan, also gets a solo vocal when she sings and plays the Clancy’s classic I’ll Tell My Ma to lighten the mood.
In the final scenes 13 years after leaving, Sean returns to Ireland accompanying a celebrated visitor to New Ross but there will be no spoiler here, you can find out for yourselves by catching the show.