Saturday 28th June 2014, matinée
It’s that time of year again – when we embark on the Royal Academy of Music‘s annual weekend marathon of shows by their Musical Theatre students. We’ve got a sneaking suspicion that the tutors at the RAM’s Musical Theatre department are a little bit sadistic. With A Man of No Importance, they have chosen a show which is based on a troupe of terrible amateur actors, most of whom are middle-aged, all of whom have Irish accents, and just to add insult to injury many of the actors have to double as members of the orchestra. But with the RAM we have learned to expect surprises, and on that count we were certainly not disappointed.
‘A Man of No Importance’ is based on a film set in 1960s Dublin, about Alfie Byrne, a gay man who barely knows his own sexuality, let alone reveals it to anyone else. A bus conductor by day, he is obsessed with books and the transformative power of ‘art’, his biggest hero is Oscar Wilde, and his life revolves around his amateur dramatics company. Undaunted by their terrible reputation, he ploughs on, but gets into trouble when he tries to put on Oscar Wilde’s ‘dirty play’ Salome in the church hall. The musical is a celebration of the underdog, the ordinary man who lights up the lives of others, and learns to accept himself through the acceptance of others.
We can’t comment on the original film (although clips are available on you tube), but Terrence McNally’s book is cleverly structured to make the most of the staged setting, using a play within a play with Alfie’s company recreating his story in their own production, affectionately christening the show ‘A Man of No Importance’ as a tribute to Wilde. The am dram setting works well and generates plenty of energy and fun, with some nice set pieces, such as the song ‘Going Up’ which takes us from Mr Carney’s butcher’s shop to the world of make-believe, and allows the characters each to do a ‘turn’ and show off their ‘talents’. In ‘Art’ we get the madcap creativity of the company as opening night approaches, and a polystyrene head of John the Baptist is tossed around with abandon. ‘The streets of Dublin’ allows Robbie, Alfie’s driver and the object of his affections to show that there is more to life than books with a lively tour of the seedier parts of Dublin. In ‘Confession’, a clever trio has Alfie in confession with the priest, trying to confess his real feelings while an imaginary Robbie hovers at his shoulder urging ‘Go on, tell him’. Stephen Flaherty’s music is gentle, lyrical and uplifting, never more so than in ‘Man in the Mirror’ (No, not that one) and ‘Love who you love’. With witty lyrics from Lynn Ahrens, this show has a lot going for it, and it is infused with quirky charm.
The cast is very strong, and under Naomi Jones’ direction, all did an excellent job of realising the music, characters and action with a pacey and energetic production which never flagged. Guy Hughes as Alfie perfectly captures his otherworldly naivety, especially in the soul-searching ‘Man in the Mirror’ (again, not that one), and he brings a gentle eccentricity to the role. There are some great supporting performances, not least Ana Richardson as Alfie’s sister Lily. She has an assured stage presence, a strong voice, and brings out the toughness and vulnerability in the character who has been trying to ‘look after’ her brother without ever really knowing him. Alex Wingfield as Robbie, Alfie’s ‘muse’, does a nice job of keeping the audience guessing about his sexuality, and brings some much-needed street-wise charm to the proceedings. Sarah Mossman brings out the comedy as Miss Crowe, the indefatigable costume designer. Amie Miller gets a chance to shine with a fantastic tap dancing and singing cameo as Mrs Curtin, the trained professional who now has a family and has to content herself with am dram, never missing a chance to get in on the act. We loved Nicholas Denton’s cameos too – as that familiar character, the amateur actor who only has one line and can’t seem to get it right, and as the cocky seducer turned abuser Breton Beret. With a clever piece of doubling, Jamie Blake plays Alfie’s hero and nemesis – Oscar Wilde, and Mr Carney the butcher who finally gets the company closed down by the church. Full of self-righteous indignation, yet barely understanding what is really going on, Blake nicely captures the misdirected ‘morality’ of the devout church-goer with no imagination. Most importantly of all the cast created a convincing world out of a few boxes and ladders, and worked together as an ensemble with huge professionalism.
This is not the obvious choice for a musical, and we felt that ultimately the set-up promised more than it delivered, lacking any real dramatic pay-off or character arc for Alfie. But we certainly had a lot of fun on the way.