Curious Tales for Christmas

Noni Stapleton and Patrick O'Donnell in 'Curious Tales for Christmas' presented by PurpleHeart in association with Theatre Upstairs. Photo: Niall Moore

Noni Stapleton and Patrick O'Donnell in 'Curious Tales for Christmas' presented by PurpleHeart in association with Theatre Upstairs. Photo: Niall Moore

These tales, adapted from short works by Ambrose Bierce, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Bram Stoker, are offered as antidotes to Christmas excess, and wouldn’t be out of place on a Hallowe’en programme. Martin Cahill’s set design, festooned with skulls, shards of broken mirror, a noose and ghostly white sheets, could even pass muster for the festivities on the Mexican Day of the Dead.

The first of these Victorian stories, by the gloomy Texan Bierce, is the revealingly titled The Middle Toe of the Right Foot, which announces in its title the inherent difficulty for Stewart Roche in adapting these works for the stage. The reading of spooky tales on winter nights, before the advent of electricity, was a mode of entertainment for simpler times; and the requirements for the reveal must have less demanding then. In PurpleHeart’s offering the individual performances are melodramatically delicious, but as short as the individual pieces are, there are longueurs as we wait for the inevitable. Thus they are essentially as panto-esque as the real thing.

In Bierce’s tale, Jim Roche as King delivers the quintessential period tale of a gentlemen’s duel gone very wrong, coupled with the revenge of the murdered digitless woman and her children. Roche’s dialect skills are superior (as will become rollickingly clearer as he migrates to Scotland and Cork later in the performances). In this solo piece, he conveys the lawless quality of the frontier with fiery aplomb, while bringing the offstage duelling pair to life.

Playing with Fire is a decidedly lesser work by Conan Doyle, and features another staple of Victorian life – the séance. Roche’s delightfully flamboyant efforts here as Hugh Sinclair misfire magnificently as he channels the spirit world through his smitten devotee, Mrs. Delamere (Noni Stapleton in the first of two over-the-top performances of great humour). Rampaging beasts (could they be unicorns?) do away with an inconvenient offstage wife.

The final, Irish, entry - Stoker's The Judge’s House, set “beyond Clonakilty” - combines rats, a hanging judge, a haunted house in the hinterlands, and Patrick O’Donnell’s present day Malcolm, a man with writer’s block and a deadline. What could go wrong? O’Donnell adds a keyed-up present day angst to the proceedings, with a manic grin that fools none of us. Finally Stewart Roche’s writing comes into its own. Digs at Brendan Carroll, David McWilliams and Fintan O’Toole fit right in, and return us again to familiar panto territory, with a twist. We won’t even go near the pun of a failed writer throwing the book at a harsh judge...

Kate Fox’s costumes hit the right note for these hijinks, although no one in nineteenth-century Texas was ever quite so well-tailored as Roche in the first playlet. Sound and music intensify the spook factor crucially, while still maintaining the comic note. Simon Toal’s initial sonorous voiceover reminds us of the source of these stories on the page from which they have sprung to life once more along the Liffey.

Christina Hunt Mahony, who directed the Center for Irish Studies at the Catholic University of America, now lectures in Trinity College. She is the editor of Out of History: Essays on the Writings of Sebastian Barry.

  • Review
  • Theatre

Curious Tales for Christmas by Stewart Roche, adapted for stage

11 - 22 December, 2012

Produced by PurpleHeart Theatre Company
In Theatre Upstairs @ Lanigan's

'The Middle Toe of the Right Foot' by Ambrose Bierce

'Playing with Fire' by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

'The Judge’s House' by Bram Stoker  

Adapted for stage by Stewart Roche

Directed by Vincent A. O’Reilly

Set Design: Martin Cahill

Lighting Design: Colm Maher

Sound Design: Mark Hendrick

Costume Design: Kate Fox

Original Music: Denis Clohessy

With: Patrick O’Donnell, Jim Roche, Stewart Roche and Noni Stapleton

Voiceover: Simon Toal