Man of Valour

Corn Exchange presents 'Man of Valour' created by Michael West, Annie Ryan and Paul Reid.

Corn Exchange presents 'Man of Valour' created by Michael West, Annie Ryan and Paul Reid.

Ashen-faced Farrell Blinks leaves home, hops on a bus to work, and takes the elevator to his office in Dublin. “Hi Farrell,” a female colleague coyly greets as he strolls to his desk, desperate to grab his attention. Switching on his computer, his mind immediately starts to wander far away from his humdrum job. In many ways, Blinks is cut from the same cloth as his predecessors in Everyday (2006): frustrated with life, alienated from other people, he scuttles through life alone. But in Corn Exchange’s terrific new one-man show, Blinks seems a more tragic character still, having effectively given up on forging human connections, in favour of spending more time in a fantasy world. He may remind us of Walter Mitty in his day-dreaming, and even Mister Bean in his comic physicality, but Blinks is more socially limited than both, finding communication with those around him almost impossible.

It doesn’t take much for the protagonist – expressively brow-dipped with Commedia make-up – to embark on a flight of fancy. In the opening sequence, shortly after arriving at work, a USB key suddenly becomes a lethal weapon that whirrs through the air and slashes a colleague’s throat. An encounter with a mirror turns into a scene from a horror film when Farrell tries to peel back his own face. The most mundane moments propel the forlorn figure into the most extraordinary adventures. Impotent in real life, in fantasy he takes no prisoners.

Written by Michael West, more poignant layers balance the numerous surreal, high-energy scenes. When nosey neighbour Mrs Nugent tells Blinks that he he looks just like his deceased father, the ghost of the aggressive man is revived, sending Blinks on a troubled mental journey, and a seemingly real trip with work to Roscommon. Although not a very elaborated point, this hint of a dysfunctional relationship is as close as we get to an underlying motivation for his behaviour.

Superbly directed by Annie Ryan, this is a virtuosic performance by Reid, who brings Blinks, and the numerous other characters he encounters, to life. Although few words are spoken in the piece, Reid evokes the character’s world through a rich symphony of vocal ticks, click and hisses, and the finely tuned movement of his body. Despite being the only person on stage, he conjures three-dimensional scenes with quick gestures and sounds, even creating physical perspective with the effect of receding noise. One moment he skips like a nimble dancer, the next he cranks into position like a machine.

Dennis Clohessy supplies a wonderfully cinematic score to accompany Farrell’s life. However, while filmic music typically functions to signal and solicit specific emotions from the audience, this music belongs to Farrell, providing a rich dramatic backdrop to fire his hero complex. Sometimes the music supports Reid’s voice to amplify an effect; that we cannot tell where the man ends and the backing track begins is a tribute to both parties.

Jack Phelan’s beautiful visuals subtly suggest rather than boldly depict movement and new locations, as Blinks passes through real and imagined worlds. Mrs Nugent’s apartment, for instance, is conveyed through a projected snippet of ageing wallpaper; the water into which Farrell eventually dives, with the upward surge of green and white light, embellished by Aedín Cosgrove’s design. The high, cavernous proscenium stage at the Everyman is probably not the best space for this particular work, but Reid does a great job to keep our eyes on him alone.

While Reid’s performance is impressive throughout, about three-quarters of the way through the 75-minute piece, his skill-set is already well proven, and many of the physical motifs have been repeated. The challenge then is to push beyond technique, by filling out an interior life for Blinks in the narrative that we can really connect with, and one that justifies our staying with him. The parental storyline has the potential to do this very well, although it feels like the production could deepen this thread a bit more. Blinks may not want to face his problems head on, but we need a few more sustained moments that reveal the man behind the masks.

Although the piece picks up on many ideas within Corn Exchange’s repertoire, in its styling it also resonates with 1940s and 50s Hollywood movies, especially Hitchcock’s work. In tone and narrative structure, it resembles a modern day action movie. The framed stage at Everyman certainly creates a feeling that we are looking up at a film. But if cinema and theatre meet in this production, in Reid’s athletic performance, we get a sense that there are some thrills unique to the live encounter.

Fintan Walsh

  • Review
  • Theatre

Man of Valour by Michael West, Annie Ryan and Paul Reid

22 - 26 June, 2011

Produced by Corn Exchange
In Everyman Palace Theatre

Written by Michael West

Directed by Annie Ryan

Performed by Paul Reid

Set and Lighting: Aedín Cosgrove

Video: Jack Phelan

Music and Sound Design: Denis Clohessy

Presented as part of Cork Midsummer Festival 2011