The Humours of Bandon by Margaret McAuliffe was the last show I watched during my time at the Edinburgh Fringe 2017. On its well-presented surface, this is a play about Irish dancing and the spangly spaghetti machine that dance champions put themselves through to take part in their favourite activity. More fundamentally, however, it is about doing something you once loved to a level of intensity that strips away any degree of ‘fun’ or ‘enjoyment’ or ‘creativity’ you once associated it with. Sound familiar? In short, The Humours of Bandon is the tonic for the soul required by all those who regularly over-commit to the effect that they end up loathing what they were meant to love. Reader, I watched this and very nearly cried.
Annie (Margaret McAuliffe) is aiming to be the national champion in her age group for Irish dancing. Her life is shaped by rehearsals, competitions, elaborate costumes that are hard to pee in whilst wearing, and endless flexi hair curlers (added bonus to watching this show: I had no idea how you actually attached those wormy foam rollers to your hair before seeing this and now I (sort of) do and am almost tempted to go buy some just because). What appears to outsiders to be a joyful, bouncing and wholesome activity is, like gymnastics and many other sports, the result of gruellingly intense practice sessions, dictatorial coaches and towels full of blood and sweat.
One thing that often marks out athletes from couch potato civilians is how, by necessity, they didn’t really do adolescence like the rest of us did. There was no smoking weed at the bus stop or living on a diet mainly consisting of squirty cream on chocolate digestives. If you had an intensely maintained hobby as a child – be it hockey, piano or debating – then there’s plenty to relate to here. Yet despite the blurb of the play saying it’s ‘for anyone whose childhood passion threatened to overwhelm their life’, there’s a lot here that’s depressingly familiar to how many of us do adulting. Excessive competition fuelling unattainable levels of output until, finally, we crack.
As a piece of performance, The Humours of Bandon is a fine example of that glorious genre of theatre: the 55-minute solo show. Playing all the characters in the piece, including three recurrent ones, McAuliffe makes a considerable task appear remarkably natural. The skill is often in the tiny details, such as the high-healed shoes worn by the dance coach that McAuliffe mimes whilst wearing just socks – a harder thing to do than you’d think. She’s also adept at delivering the humour of The Humours of Bandon. The jokes are made funny mainly by their delivery (reading them just wouldn’t be the same), and there’s one particular moment involving a line about chicken nuggets that had many of the audience doing the I-know-I’m-laughing-too-long-but-I-can’t-stop howl.
The skill of director Stefanie Preissner’s production is how it withholds the dancing until right at the end. It knows that the audience, like those everywhere, just want the entertainment, the high-kicking River Dancing Fun Part, but it gently forces them to listen to what happens behind the scenes. Annie’s impressive costumes are also just described, whilst McAuliffe’s workout clothes foreground the message that Irish Dancing isn’t a charming feminine pastime, it’s a hard-core sport. Holding back on the dancing has the additional effect of making the ending much more effective. It’s brilliant and it’s a little bit heart-breaking. But most of all, it delivered the metaphorical slap round the face I was most in need of receiving.
The Humours of Bandon is on until 27 August 2017 at Dance Base. Click here for more details.