Improbable Frequency

Darragh Kelly, Rory Nolan and Brian Doherty in Rough Magic's 'Improbable Frequency'. Photo: Anthony Woods

Darragh Kelly, Rory Nolan and Brian Doherty in Rough Magic's 'Improbable Frequency'. Photo: Anthony Woods

Improbable Frequency is an inventive and witty Irish musical with book and lyrics by Arthur Riordan, who, since its first production in 2004, has become the master of this particular sub-genre. The Irish musical is not like the West End or Broadway blockbuster, or even like Riverdance. It is more like the quasi-parodic off-Broadway show that strives for sniggers and delight in the one breath, and can occasionally rise to something special.

This is what happened to Improbable Frequency, which was a disarming surprise in 2004, given an added frisson by going for the jugular on the issue of Irish neutrality at the outset of the Iraq War when U.S. military transit through Shannon was a hot button issue. Not that that was its point.

Photo: Anthony WoodsThe play is set during the Second World War, when Ireland endured the paradoxes of The Emergency – not quite at war, not quite at peace, not really very neutral, but determined to assert its uniqueness. Mild-mannered puzzle-solving British spy Tristram Faraday (Peter Hanly) is sent to neutral Ireland to investigate mysterious radio broadcasts that seem to predict the weather. He becomes embroiled in a complex plot involving spymaster John Betjeman (Rory Nolan), ‘civil servant’ Myles na gCopaleen (Darragh Kelly), and Guest of the Nation Erwin Schrödinger, scientist and lothario (Brian Doherty). Faraday also rekindles an old relationship with fellow spy Agent Green (Cathy White), but falls in love with proud Irish colleen Philomena O’Shea (Stephanie McKeon).

The book is funny and clever, built around a series of puns that are actually wound into the plot (characters realise they’re acting out clichés and jokes, and begin to suspect there are sinister forces affecting their behaviour). The “linguistic flair” of the Irish literary scene and cognescenti is consciously evoked by the presence of at least one of its major figures, and Riordan is comfortable pitching himself among them with his rhyming dialogue and rhythmic songs. The music by Bell Helicopter (Conor Kelly and Sam Park) is a bricolage of genres, with a little cabaret, a few Oirish ditties, and an inevitable touch of rap. If truth be told, the music is starting to creak a little bit after eight years, but if you’ve not encountered it before, the mix can be intoxicating.

In fact, that sums up this production on the whole. The show is definitely not surprising anymore, and not nearly as anarchic as it seemed when was a novelty. The Irish musical, as it has evolved, is also self-consciously tangential, you see, ever more so given the now regular staging of touring West End and Broadway blockbusters in the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre. The point is not to play it entirely straight, but always with the skeptical edge and a cheeky wink. But like a joke told too often, this loses its edge and it takes superb execution to overcome.

Unfortunately the execution here is not adequate to this task. It may have been first night jitters, but the show was neither anarchic enough to make good on its commedia dell’arte stylings nor polished enough to deliver the pleasures of a slick entertainment. It felt nervy, awkward, and distant. Staged rather one-dimensionally at the Gaiety, the direction seemed to constrain the cast, who seemed awfully static much of the time, and the big ‘reveal’ from Alan Farquharson’s set aside, there isn’t a lot of interest in the décor. On the night, many song cues were hesitantly delivered, with some swallowed altogether in Photo: Anthony Woodsunintelligible mumbles. The timing was simply off. Some microphone niggles also rather sucked the life out of Cathy White’s key numbers ‘The Red Bank Restaurant' and 'Betrayal', and I’m pretty sure a music stand fell over in the pit at one point. Sonically, it’s not a pleasant experience. The voice amplification tends to flatten already monotone vocal performances (more spoken word than singing for the most part; and this is the style of it, not a criticism), and the competition with the orchestra doesn’t always flatter the performers. Truly only Stephanie McKeon’s singing voice registered on a tonal level, though Peter Hanly also entirely held his own as the mainly verbal anchor of the piece.

It’s a very old cliché, and arguably a sign of a jaded critic to say you can’t come home again, but this production of Improbable Frequency is a disappointment. I was there in 2004 and thought it was immensely enjoyable. I freely concede that those for whom this outing is their first may well have that same reaction, because the book and music are the same and they’re still good, and the cast have been around this material long enough to know how to put it over, though on the night they really didn’t. This is what makes the feeling I had leaving the Gaiety all the more crushing: I didn’t enjoy it, and wouldn’t recommend it on the basis of what I saw. But Improbable Frequency is a terrific show, and its staging over St. Patrick’s Festival was as near to a fresh dimension of satire as needed to win you over if you could find yourself surprised.

Dr. Harvey O'Brien lectures in Film Studies in University College Dublin.

  • Review
  • Theatre

Improbable Frequency by Arthur Riordan and Bell Helicopter

15- 24 March, 2012

Produced by Rough Magic
In the Gaiety Theatre

Book and Lyrics by Arthur Riordan

Music by Bell Helicopter (Conor Kelly & Sam Park)

Directed by Lynne Parker

Musical Director: Cathal Synnott

Set Design: Alan Farquharson

Costume Design: Kathy Strachan

Lighting Design: Sinead McKenna

With: Brian Doherty, Peter Hanly, Darragh Kelly, Stephanie McKeon, Rory Nolan, Cathy White

Musicians: Ellen Cranitch, Des Lacey, Conor Sheil, Cathal Synnott