The Duty Master

Sunday Independant, Leonard’s Log, February 1995.

by Hugh Leonard.

The Abbey on first nights is a combination of Theatre and dog-show, with bitches of both sexes snarling and snapping and worrying the hare – sorry, I mean the play. The Peacock, on the other hand, is more intimate and there is the chance of overhearing the occasional mot. This evening’s small jewel was “Actually, I’m never bored as long as I’m present”. It was lovely to meet Brenda Fricker, who of course is raving mad, but north-north-west, and knows a hawk from a handsaw. “God help me, I have to buy your effin’ old cat book,” she told me. And “Don’t buy it,” I said. “I’ll swap it for your Oscar.” Score at half-time: 1-1.

The occasion was Neil Donnelly’s The Duty Master, sumptuously directed by Ben Barnes against a Seurat-like evocation – done by laser – of a cricket field set in a green and pleasant land. The play might have been called Goodbye, Mr O’Chips and it resounds with all kinds of ironies. One of these is that an Irishman, Patrick O’Rourke, should be in a position of authority at that microcosm of establishment England, a public school. His wife, young daughter and mistress have had enough of him, and now his rough-diamond sibling turns up from Ireland. There are themes here, and questions. Will the acquired veneer fall away and the starched upper lip become soggy, revealing that one can take the boy out of the country, but . . . etc.etc.

In short, it could be a drama of conciliation like Arthur Miller’s The Price, but the author has other fish to fry – a fine kettle of minnows, in fact – and does do most entertainingly. There are echoes of Simon Grey and, inevitably, The Browning Version, but the play is Mr Donnelly’s own. If he will forgive a piece of impudence, however, his Act One curtain cries out to be the moment early in Act Two when John Olohan sits up in bed. Let us, please,  not be too grand to set the groundlings in a roar.

As the hapless O’Rourke, Dermot Crowley is tremendous – a stunning performance which vaut le voyage. And, playing an upper-crust pup who is evidently destined to inherit Alan Clark’s seat at Westminister, Mario Rosenstock is splendidly odious. As for Alan Barry, he continues, like Arnold Bennett’s Card, to be identified with the great cause of cheering us all up. It is always nice to hear an audience purr with pleasure when an actor comes on, and whenever Mr Barry puts his left hand, fingers-splayed, over his heart, we know the good times are about to roll.


Loretto School Magazine review, Feb 1995.

by Caroline O’Brien

A play which shows the foolishness of lies and deceit, Neil Donnelly’s The Duty Master is truly wonderful. Directed by Ben Barnes in the Peacock, the play is set in Leicestershire, England, and centres around the duty master of a public school, Patrick O’Rourke (Dermot Crowley). O’Rourke is under pressure at home and at school and the surprise appearance of his brother Michael, played by John Olohan, only adds to this. Patrick sees him as a reminder of the life he left behind.

Michael is the antithesis of his West Brit brother. The audience builds up an affinity with him, as many of us know someone like him and his Irish wit and humour creates many laughs among the audience. I suppose you could call him a typical Irish cowboy.

Patrick is in a loveless marriage with his wife Sarah (Susan Fitzgerald). She is a successful artist who is very independent of her husband. Both spouses are having affairs. He is seeing the school secretary, Estelle, who has has a soft spot for an obnoxious and precocious student Gary Williams. Gary is a typical teenage boy, always trying to be so cocksure and macho. This routine fools Estelle with disastrous results.

The Duty Master is rife with sub-plots and all are equally fascinating. The play focuses on that which is the root of the problems in our society; lies, deceit and denial. The lives of this particular society are also revolving around lies. The only innocence comes from Breda, Michael’s travelling companion, and Pippa, the O’Rourkes’ twelve year old daughter. Breda is a simple and uncomplicated girl, who befriends Pippa and Sarah. Her naivety and carefree way makes everyone else seem foolish. She accepts who she is. She is unlike Patrick, who denies his Irish roots by being pretentiously British.


Irish Times, Feb 1995.

by David Nowlan

Neil Donnelly’s most welcome new play (his first in several years) is a substantially serious work, with a significant leavening of humour, about alienation, deception and reconciliation. It’s central character is Pat O’Rourke, son of peasant stock, who left the seminary after an encounter with a woman in the old Sandford cinema in Ranelagh, then went on to leave his nationality to liveand make his home in that most English of British institutions, the public school, married to a sophisticated and successful painter, father of a somewhat distanced daughter, playing cricket for the staff verses the pupils and generally denying his origins.

His is visited unexpectedly by his brother (carrying greyhounds to Haringey, and his wife Sarah is being attracted to Reuben, a sculptor whose work is about to adorn a local road roundabout. And two sixth-formers – Williams and Baker – are practising local deceit, at a level which is bound to to merit severe punishment when Patrick (as he likes to be known in his English environment) is the master on duty in the school. Meanwhile his close colleague, the bumbling bachelor housemaster Bob Smedley, more attached to Bach than to cricket, is hoping for some kind of attachement to the new female music teacher.

The interlinking of the various parallel sub-plots with Pat’s central dilemma is not always successful, yet it is always interesting and dramatically relevant. The small talk around the school, reflecting very much the tone and texture of successful West End plays of a decade or two ago, is not always convincing, and the dialogue, particularily when it goes into rather self-conscious literary references, is not consistently persuasive. But there are both serious thought and genuine feeling at the heart of the play which merit close attention and provide an ultimately rewarding evening.

Dermot Crowley’s Pat is beautifully observed and understated, at his best when in reactive respose or alarm. Alan Barry’s Bob Smedley manages with some skill just to avoid the caricature which could have been made of this stock character. Susan Fitzgerald carries off the part of Sarah with style and aplomb, and Dawn Bradford’s Breda – the ultimate catalyst in Pat’s catharsis – brings aninvigorating freshness and assurance into the closed atmosphere of the life in which Patrick has chosen to hide his roots and feelings. Mario Rosenstock and Michael Devaney are nicely accurate as the two colluding sixth-formers. John Olohan is forcefully direct as the visiting brother and Michelle Houlden is fine as the put-upon Miss Hilton.

Joe Vanek’s effective setting is perfectly focussed on a sylvan cricket and the whole is well lit by Trevor Dawson. Ben Barnes direction is fluid, intelligent and immensely supportive of the author’s text and the actors’ interpretations.


Sunday Independent. Feb 1995

by Emer O’Kelly

Neil Donnelly’s The Duty Master priemered at the Peacock, marks an ironic, thougfhtful and sometimes waspish return to mainstream theatre. The characters are drawn with the painstaking skill of the miniaturist’s art, and he shows a fluently professional understanding of the concentration on minutiae in English middle class life as compared with the more slapdash and far less structured Irish style: England lives its beliefs in confident articulation, Ireland agonises defensively over its philosophical uneasiness, with a knee-jerk sneer at English self-assurance often its only cultural benchmark.

But there are some Irish people who integrate successfully into other cultures, including England’s, maintaining their Irish nature but developing the carapace of an adopted lifestyle rather than retreating into a personal or geographic ghetto. It is one such, the schoolmaster and former student for the priesthood, Patrick O’Rourke, who is the central character in Donnelly’s play.

O’Rourke depends on the highly disciplined and culturally privileged life of a public school in Leicestershire for his protection: he has learned to mistrusst emotion, and even his affair with the school secretary is subject to the bells which mark the school day. But when his greyhound-obsessed brother arrives straight from the farm in Meath, determined not so much on distrupting Patrick’s life as refusing to accept the possibility that his brother might actually be enjoying it. Patrick is forced to take a look into the boiling saucepan of his middle-aged hormones.


Peacock Theatre, Dublin.

Irish Times, February 1995

by Fintan O’Toole.

As a dramatist, Neil Donnelly’s main interest seems to be in middle men. The characters he tends to focus on are men in their middle years. They also tend to be somewhere in the middle of a power structure, to be functionaries whose veneer of official authority serves only to hide their rising sense of powerlessness. The Garda sergeant Jim Kerrigan in Upstarts (1980), the Christian Brother Duffy in The Silver Dollar Boys (1981) and now the eponymous public school teacher Patrick O’Rourke in The Duty Master at the Peacock, all exercise some power over others but yet feel themselves adrift and lost. Their titles give them some status in the public world but are of no help in the private domain of quiet despair. O’Rourke, played with typically supple precision by Dermot Crowley, is a mixture of his predecessors, himself halfway between Kerrigan and Duffy. Like Kerrigan, he is an unfaithful husband whose past is dissolving before his eyes, struggling to keep order amongst unruly youth.

The territory O’Rourke polices may be a public school in Leicestershire rather than an Irish Midlands town, but the tension between his private unruliness and his public function of upholding authority is no less acute. Like Brother Duffy, O’Rourke is a teacher. Where Duffy had a comically exaggerated insistence on Irish nationalist mythology, O’Rourke is the precise opposite – an Irishman fleeing his Irish and Catholic past and adopting the camouflage of English middle-class gentility. But one construct of nationality is as limited as the other, and O’Rourke’s attempts to evade his nationality are as pathological as Duffy’s attempt to make exaggerated claims for his. It is not hard to see where Donnelly’s concern with these half-way states comes from. Sean McCarthy, in a programme essay, describes Donnelly as “the voice of … the last furtive Irish generation”, and the description is apt. Donnelly’s mental universe shifts all the time between Ireland and England. His world is that of the last generation of Irish people who could have thought of emigration to England as a permanent shift to another culture. The best summing up of the mental state of his middle-men might be a phrase from a much earlier Irish play. What John Joe in Tom Murphy’s A Crucial Week in the Life of a Grocer’s Assistant says of his generation: “We’re half-men here or half-men away, and how can we ever hope to do anything?” is still largely true of Donnelly’s protagonists.

This sense that The Duty Master reflects a world unchanged since the 1960s inevitably gives it a curiously old fashioned feel. By choosing to set the play in and around a public school, where the atmosphere is that of a pre-war world, Donnelly greatly deepens this feeling of being in a time warp. Kerrigan and Duffy are memorable figures because the world they exist in – that of a sharply defined Irish Midlands of the 1960s and 1970s – is powerfully evoked. Both Upstarts The Silver Dollar Boys felt, when they were first produced in the early 1980s, quite contemporary. But in The Duty Master, the twin poles between which O’Rourke is suspended are both static and rather desiccated cypers. England is cricket, matron, Bach chorales, and an art gallery. Ireland is ancient Mammy, curranty cake, green fields with ponies, clerical students losing their faith in the faith. Patrick’s brother Michael (John Olohan), who comes to haunt him, is a happy-go-lucky greyhound trainer. The effect of putting them together is a bit like reading alternate pages of an early Edna O’Brien novcel and a Billy Bunter story. For all Crowley’s intelligent and sensitive acting, it is hard, finding O’Rourke placed between such flat stereotypes, to take his dilemma seriously. It is not that the play is anything but well-made. There is some looseness in the writing (Does a 12-year old child looking through a pair of binoculars really say “Wow, they bring everything in the distance up close!” as if she has never heard of binoculars before?) but for the most part the play is skillfully constructed. Director Ben Barnes handles the unusually large cast (15 actors) very well, and also does what he can to add theatricality and visual depth to the staging. The acting is universally confident and coherent. But this well-made feel to the piece is itself a sign of just how artificial it is. The themes of the play – Ireland and England, public authority and private drift – are big, messy and complicated, and if the play was dealing with them in any contemporay way, it would not feel so small, neat and simple. As an exercise in stagecraft, The Duty Master is much more polished and precise than either Upstarts or The Silver Dollar Boys. But they felt rough, awkward and a little bit wild because they were plugged in to the raw immediacy of Irish reality. The Duty Master doesn’t, because it isn’t.

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