James Son of James

James Son of James
Judith Mackrell
The Guardian, Thursday 7 Feb 2008

Fabulous Beast
Barbican, London

Over the past four years, Michael Keegan-Dolan has been compiling a portrait of his native Ireland as home to a community of deluded, blood-stained, history-ensnared deviants. But while Giselle and The Bull, the first two works in his Midlands Trilogy, used classic texts to drive their scenarios, the final work, James Son of James, has been drafted by Keegan-Dolan himself. Unfortunately, this is a mistake.

The story of a man cast as saviour, then scapegoat, within his home town carries strong biblical overtones, and is told through Fabulous Beast’s trademark mix of dance theatre and subverted musical comedy. But it lacks the transcending power of myth.

James is an accidental hero. Returning from his travels abroad to bury his father, his handsome, easy manner strikes a charismatic contrast to the repressed and ugly mood of his native town. From the local policeman and his wife who are failing to get pregnant, to the gay doctor who wishes he had been a hairdresser, to the widowed merchant who smothers his daughter with anxious care, this is a town seething with tragedies, paranoia and obsession.

By chance, James rescues the suicidal daughter from drowning and finds himself elevated to the role of community saint. The women are over him like a fever, the men all want to be his friend. Yet the more James fixes the lives of these people, the more warped and angry they turn out to be. When a crime is committed in town James is fingered, and lynched.

When it comes to detail, this production is often clever. Short, cartoon-like dance sequences introduce character and plot to comic effect. Particularly funny is the contortionist duet through which the policeman and his wife attempt to conceive, a quivering marathon of dogged ecstasy and pain. A medley of sour, satirical songs from Philip Feeney’s score satisfyingly curdles the tone, and Merle Hensel’s set — a huge wooden cut-out house — serves as an ingenious series of locations.

Yet, disappointingly, the details do not add up. Few of the characters are imagined in sufficient depth, and as the tension intensifies, they make the leap into madness or murder far too easily. It is not just that the dialogue and choreography ultimately fail to do the work required, but that the storyline lacks a compelling inevitability. There are laughs to be had, but unlike Giselle or The Bull, the tragic wheel does not turn.

Judith Mackrell, The Guardian ★★★

Original article