Sydney theatre has been fascinated by the Irish for two decades. We’ve met a host of quick-witted resilient characters struggling with the British and the Mother Church, and their lyrical dreams to escape Irish poverty, provincialism and prudery for places like Australia.
Ireland today is far more liberal and sophisticated but these nostalgic stories, forged in a time when Ireland and Australia shared much the same character, still get trotted out. The latest is A Couple Of Blaguards, in which Max Gillies and Max Cullen play through a collage of all these funny old Irish characters and tall stories.
Actually the show goes back 20 years to when the authors, immigrant brothers Frank and Malachy McCourt, first acted out their biographical stories in a successful US tour. It was staged by Sydney’s Ensemble in 2000.
The brothers remember their poor life back in Limerick, with a hell-raising priest warning of the wages of sin, a granny equally besotted with the absurdities of the church and a town parade of other gossiping old souls looking for fault. Their lives are etched by funerals and drink, unemployment and the impossibility of getting laid.
Their escape to America offers us welcome new territory as they discover the cliques where the Irish protect their own. Frank McCourt ends up a teacher and Malachy an actor, then bar-owner and shock jock.
The doleful Cullen and the portly bug-eyed Gillies bring alive the McCourts’ stories with much humour and charm. Famed for his political caricatures, Gillies uses the same wicked inventiveness playing the female vamps and virgins passing through the lives of the brothers. He also has the confidence as a solo comic to deliver a narrative, which here leaps in Irish tangents so as to include all the best gags.
For such a well trodden show though, and one directed by Howard Platt, who directed the original brothers, it is surprisingly rambling and loosely punctuated. Cullen is more successful at the poignant moments than the quick changes in storytelling.
There are lots of laughs to be had in A Couple Of Blaguards and from these masterly actors. The McCourt narrative though becomes so entangled with comic tangents, as vehicles less for insight than for gags, that finally you are left unmoved, the laughter adding up to nothing. And as we should all know by now -“ that’s not in the spirit of the old Irish.
A Couple Of Blaguards is at the Seymour Centre until 17 December.