Chalk Farm Blues

Irish Press review

by Michael Sheridan, 1984.

For his third full-length premiere at The Peacock Theatre, playwright Neil Donnelly has chosen a London squat as the scenario of human disintegration. This all too common process is a recurring theme throughout the writer’s work, and in Chalk Farm Blues, which opened last night it was woven solidly into the dramatic tapestry.

Donnelly has a very clever technique of setting up his characters quickly in the opening scenes and then slowly stripping layers as the action progresses. It is not that the Tullamore author simply has a poor opinion of human nature, but rather a very keen observation of the many frailties.

Anyone who occupied a square foot of a swinging condominium will derive great pleasure from this very funny play with serious undertones. Living the common life should beat the imploding excesses of the suburban wasteland – share and share alike – a socialist dream peppered with the fruits of Eastern philosophy.

But the political Ying does not always harmonise with the personal Yang – rats living in crowded cages tend to end up in the role of cannibal. And so it is in Chalk Farm – the members of the present commune all share nasty pasts. But before the nastiest resort to cannibalism. Donnelly has the sound theatrical sense to knock a lot of comedy out of their ghastly pretensions.

Tom Hickey is once again brilliant as the computer operator who intones mantras, having divested himself of the pinstripe suit and replaced the briefcase with a stick of incense. Malcolm Douglas does some wonderful stage gyrations as the out of work actor always one step from the film set and of the convinced opinion that stealing constitutes a political strike against the system.

The motley squat crew is completed by a Kildare parasite, who finds the Orient no more entertaining than the Bog of Allen (lovely portrayal by Emmet Bergin), a screaming female neurotic (perfectly realised by Fedelma Culen) and separated Dublin girl in search of love and affection (fresh and sympathetic interpretation by Cathryn Brennan).

The whole piece is directed with assurance by Ben Barnes. Well worth a visit. Right on Mr. Donnelly.

Irish Times review

by David Nowlan, 1984.

“Chalk Farm Blues,” which received its first production in the Peacock theatre last night, is a funny, gentle, and deeply serious play about ruptured, yet uncompleted, relationships. It is also an observant and affectionate satire of several alternative societies, which strive ineffectually to come to terms with the mainstream of the contemporary 20th century way of life. It is the best piece of dramatic writing yet from Neil Donnelly; but, because it’s dramatic focus (at least in Ben Barnes’s very proficient production) seem a little diffuse, it does not have quite the immediate theatrical impact achieved by Mr. Donnelly’s earlier “Silver Dollar Boys.”

It is a play about yearning. Stevie (a marvellous performance from Malcolm Douglas, full of swooping ambition, distraught disappointment and an infinite capacity for coming to terms with both) is hooked equally on a mismash of macrobiotics and movies and unlikely to make a success of either. He lives in a “squat” in a condemned house in Camden, presided over by one Badami (Tom Hickey, funny as ever but struggling somewhat with an unlikely accent), who is an Eastern mystic and local political agitator by night and weekend, a computer expert in the day job, yet still yearning, despite himself, for the life in which he was James and his wife was Felicity and they had three jolly children.

Then there is Toni, as “liberated” as can be imagined on the surface, yet hooked by a yearning turning to anger on her relationship with Peter, a flitting Irishman who fled his horsey Kildare home for Camden and fled Camden for the lure of Indian mysticism, leaving Toni in the lurch. Toni (Fedelma Cullen, as touching as she is fiery) finds Clair weeping at the station and invites her to join the gang in the squat; she can have Peter’s space. Clair (Cathryn Brennan, at first passive, then defensive and finally dominated) is fresh from Ireland, a middle-class lady in search of her errant husband and four-year-old daughter, believed to be living in the vicinity. Then Peter (a nicely value Emmet Bergin) returns.

All five are searching for something they either had or might have. The “squat” is a shelter along the way. They may leave it when they have broken the chains of yearning, or move with it when it falls due for demolition, and a new address must be found to shelter them from the real world.

Mr. Donnelly’s play is absorbing and it is well served by its cast and director. Wendy Shea’s set (apart from one aberrant window with the curtains on the outside) is just right and Tony Wakefield’s lighting is fine and summery. For the performances alone (especially Mr. Douglas’s) the evening would be worth anyone’s time. But there is much more to it than that.

Variety review

by Maxwell Sweeney, 1984.

Five people in search of an unidentified peace, form the mixed company in an unoccupied rundown house in London’s Chalk Farm district. Their immediate joint problem is to save their “squat” from demolition until they have moved on. A muddled form of mysticism is felt by some as a solution and this provides Tom Hickey with an excellent part as a bowler-hatted computer-programmer by day and the mystic Badami at other times. Hickey is an actor of considerable versatility and turns in a standout performance.

Clair, a woman who was seeking a missing husband, becomes absorbed into the commune and its confusion. Cathryn Brennan projects the characters’ emergence from distress to acceptance admirably.

The playwright is consistent in his construction of roles which the players and director could round-out. Emmet Bergin is properly cast in the role of the good looking and easy moving would-be great lover; and the young Malcolm Douglas as a film buff and would be film extra sweeps from distress to ecstasy and back again with agility.

The dialog is good and informative without being pedantic, and the single setting is characteristic of a “squat” in any big city, which helps to make the piece easily translatable to any stage or to TV. Neil Donnelly won the Harvey’s Award for the Best Play in 1982 with “The Silver Dollar Boys;” he may not get this year’s Award but he should get a medal for providing such good roles for five players.



Share this via: