After a well-received run at the Union Theatre in Southwark, A Man of No Importance has transferred to the West End to the Arts Theatre with a limited run of just 3 weeks. Based on a film from 1995 starring Albert Finney, a cast of 17 and a band of 6 create an utterly charming, warm-hearted piece of musical theatre that will transport you right away from the freezing outside to a very happy place.
We’re taken to the world of Alfie Byrne, a bus conductor in 1960s Dublin who lives with his sister, has a passion for amateur dramatics, in particular the works of Oscar Wilde, and is hiding a burning desire for his work colleague, Robbie the driver on his bus. His decision to put on a performance of the controversial ‘Salome’ causes ripples in this Catholic, working-class community that multiply and force Alfie onto a journey of discovery, both of the self and of his relationship to those around him.
In the central role, Paul Clarkson is just excellent. As a repressed gay man who knows he can never possess that which he so desires, he is desperately moving, and his penchant for bringing light and culture into the everyday world of his bus customers and theatre group means that one cannot help but fall for him and instantly wish for a happy ending for him.
Joanna Nevin as Lily, Alfie’s sister, turns in a masterfully comic, sharing the funniest song of the night in ‘Books’ but also displaying a huge depth of emotion in showing her frustration with her unmarried brother, the sense of wasted possibilities and finally allowing her love for her sibling to shine through and to accept him as he really is: the last of which moved me to tears. Her performance epitomises the understated class of this whole production, her character could easily have degenerated into a ‘Mrs Doyle from Father Ted’ cast-off but the affection that this cast clearly has for this play and their characters shines through.
Paul Monaghan‘s gruff butcher Carney is another character that could easily be played as a caricature, but Monaghan captures it perfectly, always keeping him believable. Patrick Kelliher as Robbie, the object of Alfie’s affections and Róisín Sullivan as Adele, the girl chosen to play Salome in their play both also turn in sweet, open performances, and both with excellent solo songs, Kelliher’s ‘Streets of Dublin’ being a highlight for me.
And the music composed by Stephen Flaherty really does deserve a special mention as well. It’s simple and unmistakeably Irish but without being twee, the lyrics by Lynn Ahrens are witty and thoughtful and above all, the songs are tuneful. Under Chris Peake’s musical direction, the band is bright and some of the actors even double up as musicians onstage as well. My only criticism would be in the production design, it betrays its fringe roots somewhat and could have done with a little sprucing up as befits a West End audience, but this a minor quibble.
I can’t recommend this enough, so don’t miss out on this new opportunity to see this little gem. It may be small in outlook, especially compared to the other musicals on the West End stage, but its impact is genuinely huge and it can call itself at least the equal of anything else currently in London.
Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes, with an interval
Programme cost: £2.50
Note: wear a thick jumper: for the second show in a row, it has been freezing inside the Arts Theatre