In Paul Laverty’s stage version of Jimmy’s Hall, co-adapted by Graham McLaren, no one gets a more self-assured introduction than its producer. An actor announces from the stage that this is the work of the Abbey Theatre, before they ring a gong to commence proceedings (an old house tradition). The Irish national theatre has come to regard itself.
Adding to this earnestness, Laverty’s leading character – Jimmy Gralton, a real-life farmer who built a dance hall to encourage freedom of expression in 1930s Ireland – is introduced by old audio from our sitting President. The most commanding of national institutions, it seems, can be called upon to collaborate with the Abbey Theatre.
This lively adaptation sees Jimmy (a charming Richard Clements), recently returned from America, and urged to re-open his hall for culture and study. Here, in a stultifying Irish state bruised from Civil War, Craig Connolly’s young Brendan says he can’t wait for another revolution. He and his peers erupt into ceilidh dancing which McLaren’s direction allows to blaze at length. Driven by dynamic musical arrangements, this is resistance made thrillingly corporeal.
And so, within the walls of Colin Richmond’s pristine hall set, a community gathers to discuss the country’s problems with such diligent enquiry that Jimmy’s hall, no less than McLaren’s bustling production, holds a country’s fumbling growth to account. In one Brechtian cutaway, Ruth McGill’s Tess jabs a guitar ballad that rebukes a Republic that lost its way generations ago: “Faithfully departed / Look at what you started”.
Moments of eloquence are best found in Vicki Manderson’s choreography, which through its vigorous sets and chains puts a rebellion in motion. The adversaries have less teeth; Bosco Hogan’s priest, who deplores the hall’s secular identity, would have greater weight if his threats weren’t vapid (“There will be no wild jazz here”). A blooming romance between Jimmy and Lisa Lambe’s Oonagh would also hold better sway if not for its clichés (“You take my breath away”).
That it all still falls into place says less about Laverty and McLaren’s script than it does about Pamela McQueen’s magnificent dramaturgy, which tests the national theatre’s self-reflexive muscle to ensure that the plot hits its mark. The play judders between songs, dances, lovers and critiques, but it also paves the way for the darkening days of censorship, the infamous Dance Hall Act and its control over public life. Ultimately, it reminds us of the vital need for freethinking, and a place to do it in.
Jimmy’s Hall is on until 19 August 2017 at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin. Click here for more details.