Review: The Colleen Bawn

What's most staggering about Dion Boucicault's The Colleen Bawn, adapted for the Lyric stage by Lisa May and her Bruiser Theatre Company, is that beneath its hyperactive hijinks lies a troubling, heartfelt reality acted to the hilt by a passionate cast united to delight on the stage but divided by class on the page.

Strip away the pace and aesthetics and you have a troubling insight into how thin the line between harmony and discord can be, and how necessity may well be temporary liberating but ultimately restrictive. Alongside the recent arts cuts in Northern Ireland, where many are putting on a brave face while not knowing where they will be in the long-term, it couldn't be more timely.

But, simultaneously, it couldn't be more entertaining.

Like Craggy Island transported back in time, but with instruments everywhere to be seen and played – in particular, guitars, penny whistles, a fiddle, a flute and a piano – The Colleen Bawn relishes in celebrating and dissecting every relevant classic "Oirish" element in its book. An impressive score, ingenious choreography and distinctly broad accents align themselves nicely with a superb, atmospheric Grace Smart set.

Just the right kind of setting for the turbulent tale of Hardress Cregan, played by Cavan Clarke, and his secret wife Eily O'Connor, played by Maeve Smyth. "Secret", because, being a struggling landowner in nineteenth century Ireland, he can’t be seen as the husband of a commoner – The Colleen Bawn ("fair girl") of the title. Especially while his estate is in danger of being seized by Enda Kilroy's unscrupulous magistrate, Mr Corrigan.

It is left for either Hardress's mother (Jo Donnelly) to marry Corrigan or Hardress himself to marry Anne Chute, the wealthy Colleen Ruaidh ("red-haired girl", played by the anything-but-red-haired Colette Lennon Dougal) who he does not love. One can imagine how Kyrle Daly (Bryan Quinn), who does love Anne, feels about all this – and where does the hunchbacked Danny Mann (Patrick McBrearty) come into it all?

Yes, it's convoluted. Or at least it seems to be. But while the plot strands and ideas in Boucicault’s play are numerous, the core narrative, about people who can't afford to love, is pretty straightforward and identifiable. May never loses sight of this, calmly leading her gifted cast though an inventively experimental first act to a more emotion-driven second act, where an ensemble at the top of their form broadens the laughs and their range through multiple character playing of the highest order.

Such emotions take The Colleen Bawn above the level of a typical farce into something more heartfelt. Eily herself is a fine dramatic role, underplayed but pivotal, and Maeve Smyth sells her beautifully while retaining her comic self-awareness. Similarly, Colette Lennon Dougal, who has made bonkers theatre her forte of late, thrives on playing up Anne's image-obsessed nature but is never less than recognisably human. They, along with the traditionalist beliefs and maternal instincts of Jo Donnelly's characters, are a nice and adroit contrast with the high-profile comic aptitude of the men in the cast, Patrick McBrearty stealing the show with high-pitched projection and unsettling but unmissable mannerisms.

Effervescent, energetic and inventive, The Colleen Bawn is the sort of outrageous melodrama worthy of a bruising from Bruiser and a viewing from modern audiences, its cast and crew battling against hard times in truth and fiction to deliver two hours of well-paced and generally hilarious entertainment strengthened by a richly humane and intelligent undercurrent. For that I am happy to (possibly) go out on a limb and declare The Colleen Bawn Bruiser NI's best theatrical work to date.

Simon Fallaha

The Colleen Bawn runs at Belfast's Lyric Theatre until Saturday 28 April. For more information go to

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