Reviews OWE & Fringe Published 22 February 2014

Finian’s Rainbow

Union Theatre ⋄ 12th February - 15th March 2014

An irresistible oddity.

Stewart Pringle

Surely the Time Team of the long-lost musical, the Union Theatre has unearthed another strange, broken classic and lavished it with such care, attention and talent that it emerges in a riot of brash vivacity and charm. The Union’s honorary Tony Robinson (bear with me), Phil Willmott, is once again responsible for wrenching Finian’s Rainbow from the dust, making its first UK revival in half a century a joy from start to finish.

Unless you’re a Broadway nut or Francis Ford Coppola completest (he directed the heinous film version in 1968 – a blarney-meets-Brigadoon abomination) you’re unlikely to have encountered Finian’s Rainbow. It’s a tricky mixture of patronising Irish stereotypes and coarsely realised civil rights satire constructed with careless whimsy and frivolous jocularity. It also contains some of the catchiest standards in the Songbook.

The book by Fred Saidy and lyricist E Y Harsburg is catastrophic. The titular Irish chancer and his beautiful granddaughter rock up to a beleaguered tobacco plantation named Rainbow Valley, which is currently threatened with a forced buy-out at the hands of the nefarious Senator Rawkins. Luckily, Finian has brought with him a magical crock of gold that can solve all of their problems, unluckily (sort of) he stole it from a leprechaun (obviously) who has followed them across the Atlantic to get it back. The local square-jawed stud falls for the granddaughter, the leprechaun falls for a local mute girl who communicates via the medium of dance (I shit you not) and things get mildly complicated in quite a confusing way for roughly two hours.

I’m well aware that this sounds excruciating, but in Willmott’s canny control, played sweet and sincere rather than winkingly clever-clever, propelled by Thomas Michael Voss’s stunning choreography and buoyed throughout by Burton Lane’s vertiginous melodies, Finian’s Rainbow becomes an irresistible oddity.

One reason why Finian’s Rainbow has festered so long on the shelf is its problematic treatment of race. The twinkly, tour-bus performance of Irishness makes Martin McDonagh look like Conor McPherson – it does, in fact, share a number of plot elements with that Lucky Charms commercial – but that’s not the biggest complication. Saidy and Harsburg’s book makes a commendable effort to demonstrate the cruelty of anti-immigration laws, to puncture the political rhetoric of isolationism and capitalism run amok, as well as to celebrate the lives of black Americans.

Unfortunately it’s full of painful blunders, the greatest of all, in which the Senator is ‘punished’ for his crimes by being transformed into a black man in a sort of racist reworking of The Prince and the Pauper (he’s later changed back – PHEW, eh readers??). Willmott and adaptor Charlotte Moore have made a sort-of-successful rewrite to this section by altering the nature of the transformation, but the show’s squiffy relationship to race remains a tangible undercurrent, made all the more poignant by its visible good-intentions. There’s nothing poisonous about Finian’s Rainbow, there is no need to ‘overlook’ the problems, they are there to be acknowledged: they are the best efforts of an imperfect liberal from another era, and their presence in this otherwise gleeful musical are a reminder that progressive thinking has always possessed an expiry date, that it has had and will always have a responsibility to stay on its guard.

Willmott is open about the show’s troubled reception history in his characteristically candid Director’s Note, but it is his production which makes the strongest case for this revival’s existence. Lane’s score, which includes classics such as ‘Old Devil Moon’, ‘When I’m Not Near the Girl I Love’ and ‘How Are Things in Glocca Morra?’ is performed beautifully by the 20+ strong cast, who tumble, skip and soar across the stage in a constant riot of colour and excitement. Richard Baker’s musical direction is spot on, evading the levelling issues which can occasionally afflict companies in the diminutive Union. The score blends traditional Irish music with strong gospel influences, and the cast are note-perfect. Stage pictures and dance routines remain clear and crisp despite the crowding, and the lunatic half-baked subplots that are flung into the air barely have a chance to register before they’re tossed to the wayside by another rousing hit.

Some of the acting is as broad as the book, though there are strong performances from James Horne as Finian and Michael Hayes as the swivel-eyed Rawkins. Vocally the cast excel, with Christina Bennington impressing in particular as Finian’s granddaughter Sharon.

It’s not the sort of forgotten treasure you can expect to sweep the West End, and it could be another 50 years until the Rainbow next materialises. If you’re a lover of the Golden Age of Broadway you’d be advised to catch it while you can, particularly while it has the good fortune of this impeccable production.


Stewart Pringle

Writer of this and that and critic for here and there. Artistic director of the Old Red Lion Theatre.

Finian’s Rainbow Show Info

Directed by Phil Willmott

Cast includes James Horne, Christina Bennington, Raymond Walsh, Michael Moulton, Anne Odeke, Marcia Lorenzo Cerise Reid, Michael J Hayes, John Last, Joseph Peters, Laura Bella Griffin, David Malcolm, Chris Kayson, Joshua Coley, Carl Bradley, Celia Byrne, Laura Webb, Shani Cantor, Danielle Acors, Lucy Murdoch, Rebecca Crawley, Abigail Carter Simpson and Stacey Victoria Bland




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