“A good sinner can get into a lot of mischief in a week”
Much like its central character, the charms of A Man of No Importance are gentle and delicate and these remain the watchwords for Gareth Machin’s actor/musician production of this musical for Salisbury Playhouse. Based on a 1994 film and set in early 1960s Dublin, Alfie Byrne is an unassuming bus conductor whose main passion in life is directing his local am-dram society at St Imelda’s. But even that has stagnated with endless runs of The Importance of Being Earnest leaching his creativity so he makes the decision to stage the much more controversial Salome, also by Oscar Wilde, unaware of the tumultuous course of action it will unleash for all concerned.
For the weight of the Catholic Church’s disapproval is a heavy load to bear and as the production is condemned for its blasphemy after local busybodies go running to the monsignor, a light has been shone under the genteel façade of this community and exposed homosexual longings, extramarital affairs and illegitimate pregnancies. Alfie is at the centre of it all as it is his secret `desire for his handsome younger workmate Robbie that precipitates the most seismic change but even as he feels his whole world changing from underneath him, surprises lie in store all along the way.
Machin’s choice of the actor/musician model pays dividends as the constant onstage presence of at least some number of the 12-strong company replicates that sense of an ever-watchful community from whom it is near-impossible to keep secrets. Such intimacy can be suffocating but it also has its potential rewards and that is something which is movingly explored in Terrence McNally’s book and Lynn Ahrens’s lyrics with their tender messages of acceptance (for some though, not all…) Mark Meadows breathes fragile life into the closeted Alfie with a neatly balanced suggestion both of his emotional naïveté but also the richness of his internal life, given voice here by his interactions with a kind of spirit guide in the form of Oscar Wilde.
The default to understated emotion throughout the whole show, including Stephen Flaherty’s Celtic-influenced music, does have a slightly stultifying effect especially in the first half and there’s not always quite enough pace or variation to hook the audience in. But post-interval, things improve significantly. There’s delicious humour from Susannah van den Berg’s inimitable dance of the seven veils, a most moving yet heart-warming song of reminiscence by Roy Weskin’s widower and in Fra Fee’s Robbie and Laura Pitt-Pulford’s Adele, two exciting upcoming talents who will be ones to watch in the world of musical theatre to come.
This is a show about quietly stirring moments rather than rousing show-stopping climaxes but that is not to say that there is any less emotion on show, it is just a subtler beast than that. I’m not 100% sure that this production captures that as successfully as the Union’s adaptation a couple of years ago but it is still worth the trip to Salisbury, as a first time visitor there I was utterly enchanted by its charms and the insane number of charity shops it seems to sustain.