Peacock Theatre, Dublin.
Hibernia 14 August 1980
by Colm Cronin.
In his new play, Upstarts, at the Peacock Neil Donnelly has done for the Gardai what Thomas Babe did for New York policemen in his ‘Prayer for my Daughter’ – shown them to be no less and no more than any other human beings when put under personal and professional pressure. However he has done so with far greater faith in their better nature and far less cynicism about their devotion to law and order. The result is that his portrayal of policework, whether in a small midlands town or a large metropolitan city, carries a conviction that is as deep as it is true and as funny as it is sad.
With echoes of “The Barracks” (which was adapted for the stage by Pat Layde from McGahern’s novel) Upstarts is extremely well written and overflows with dialogue which shows that Donnelly has a superb ear for everyday conversation and he uses humour to cover up the reality of dreams gone dead and ambition gone sour. He also shows he can capture characters in all their moods and not just their main ones, and he is partcularily fine on revealing people at their most vulnerable. And all of them in this play are vulnerable, especially Kerrigan (Kevin McHugh) who epitomises not just a Garda but any human being on whom the fates have turned their backs, leaving him with that sickening feeling of failure that embitters everything he says or does. Counterbalancing Kerrigan are the station sergeant (Clive Geraghty) who enforces the law according to the local order of things so as not to upset the status quo (especially as he is emigrating to Australia shortly) and the new recruit (Macdara O’Fatharta), who is as keen to enforce the law according to the lawbook as the emperor was to show off his new clothes, and is just as naive about it. What they have to contend with are drunken tinkers and petty thievery, traffic offences and dog licences and what they don’t want to contend with is the Duggan clan, local criminals masquerading as green patriots, who consider themselves above and beyond the law.
But they overlooked Kerrigan, who considers himself to be the law and who takes them on in a last, frustrated act of reckless atonement for all the drinking, infidelity and failure that has made up his life. His determination to re-establish his self-respect brings him to the brink of insanity and that is where Donnelly almost loses control of his main character and of the play. In solving the problem he pulls him back and lets him resign in failure rather than letting him jump, and while the move is probably more in character than any other he might have taken, it weakens the impact of the ending. Apart from his own talents Donnelly is blessed in the talents of others provided for this production, especially those of Pat Laffan who has done a superb job of direction and who has moulded everything together. McHugh, Geraghty and O’Fatharta are all excellent – McHugh captured the choking anguish and raging blindness of a castrated lion, Geraghty the analytic coolness of an old campaigner and O’Fatharta the transparent naivety of a virgin choirboy. And they all receive superb support from the rest of the cast who dovetail beautifully into Juliet Watkinson’s practical but realistic settings. This is one of the most entertaining and satisfying new plays for ages and elevates Donnelly up there with those other successful Peacock protegees, Bernard Farrell and Graham Reid.