James Son of James
The Times, February 7, 2008
The problem with having one hit after another is the weight of expectation on everything you do. Michael Keegan-Dolan, the director of Ireland’s Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre, enjoyed huge success with the first two parts of his so-called Midlands Trilogy. Indeed, the second part, The Bull, just won a Critics’ Circle National Dance Award. So wasn’t the third, James Son of James, certain to follow suit? How disappointing, then, to find otherwise. For all the vividness of its characters and setting, James Son of James lacks the dazzling creative spark of the earlier works.
Again we are in the Irish Midlands, and again we are shown a society in transition. With rising economic prosperity and an influx of foreign migrants, traditional social patterns are changing. James is the wandering son who returns home after 11 years away to attend his father’s funeral. When he rescues a local girl from drowning (she was apparently intent on suicide) he becomes an accidental hero. As he gradually affects the lives of the ten people around him it begins to look as if he’s an angel dispensing goodness and righting their ills. But it’s not that simple, of course, and when James’s beneficence is turned cruelly against him the production takes on an entirely different tone.
Keegan-Dolan tells his 90-minute tale in speech, song, clowning and dance — the complete package. The set is a construction site on which a house is being built. The score, by Philip Feeney, provides suitable mood music, while the interspersed songs add narrative lustre. The choreography (a company effort) is doled out in meagre doses, but when it does come its wanton physicality is welcome. Duets express various frustrations and desires, leaving nothing to the imagination and making clever use of comic overstatement. The townspeople are well drawn. The politician ambitious for re-election; his frustrated wife and troubled son; the policeman and his wife, desperate for a child; the lonely farmer and the East European woman seeking security; the doctor struggling with homosexuality. The grieving merchant (his wife died in a fire) and his tormented daughter (the one saved by James). But they are let down by a weak and prosaic script that accentuates the production’s flatness. The ending, too, despite its theatrical punch and religious imagery, is a muddle of mixed ideas and missed chances.
James is the most centred person on stage, and not just because he teaches the local breathing class. But although Emmanuel Obeya delivers him with a kind of beatific naivety, James remains a blank slate. The rest of the international cast is equally outstanding, imbuing their stories with conviction and a strong physicality even when not dancing. If only the show as a whole had their kind of focus.
Debra Craine, The Times ★★★