Country music star Irene Day (Siobhan McCarthy) steps out at the start of Frank McGuinness and Kevin Doherty’s new ‘play with songs’ and mournfully coos: “Today my eyes turned red / At my mother’s grave”. We soon discover that’s wishful thinking; her mother Magdalene (Deirdre Donnelly), a ferocious creature resenting the day humanity first crawled out of the ocean, is firmly alive. Mentally and financially, music is a means for Irene to live out a fantasy.
That dream is beginning to crumble. As Irene’s star fades, her family of dependents grow nervous about the future. Their reception of her son Jackie (an excellent Killian Donnelly), home from the US where his pop-styled country music is proving popular, is frosty and tinged with a sense of entitlement to his wealth. As his father (Frank Laverty) chillingly reminds him: “We are who you come from”.
This Abbey Theatre production is a much more conventional musical than its billing (just ‘with songs’) suggests. Kevin Doherty’s music fleshes out characters and advances the plot. The arrangements, however, fail to keep pace with the staging, often bringing momentum to a halt. Curiously, director Conall Morrison presents some numbers within a straitened model of musical theatre naturalism that sends seething characters to the background, suspiciously shut up and hesitant to interrupt the singer. Is this really believable?
Such restraint might have to do with the source of McGuinness’s inspiration. The family’s musical fortune could be a fill-in for Chekhov’s cherry orchard, and McCarthy’s staunch Irene ignores her son’s craft like Arkadina also does in The Seagull. There is a hesitation to present the play obtusely, closer to a musical, as if too great a departure might cause a sombre atmosphere to dissipate.
McGuinness, like Chekhov, is carving out something elegiac. During her most stirring song, Irene sings “The West’s awake! / Sing, oh! hurrah! let England quake!”, suggesting some lineage between her country music and old patriotic ballads. But attitudes to old conflicts have shifted, and demand for her songs along with them. As a result, her family is fascinatingly suspicious of foreign influence and trends, particularly in the form of Jackie’s American girlfriend Liza (Megan Riordan), accidentally revealed as the protagonist of the piece.
I say ‘accidentally’ because the play, with too many characters on its hands, seems uncertain of where the pathos lies: with a scorned outsider or a brutal tribe gathered in a line (of course!), singing us out in a celebration of the ties that bind? Resistant to change, these are ultimately characters and links that should self destruct.
Donegal is on until 19th November 2016 at the Abbey Theatre. Click here for more details.