Review: Porridge Boy, Greenwich Theatre

Porridge Boy, a new Irish musical arrives at Greenwich Theatre with big promises it fails to keep

“Don’t I deserve to be happy?”

With literary aspirations of the work of Roddy Doyle and Frank McCourt, and musical ones of Once the Musical, there’s clearly no lack of ambition with the team behind new musical Porridge Boy. Written by Brendan Shelly and co-directed him with Coco Mbassi, it feels like a work-in-progress to try and reach those heights though. There’s plenty of raw material here to work with in his debut musical, however it needs a bolder hand to prune and reshape it.

Its core subject is grief. In Ireland 1979, Dan and Joey are six months deep into mourning the death of their father and as the Troubles rage on, their Mam is looking to move on with his best friend, authoritarian policeman Maurice. Dan’s acting out, Joey’s become a shut-in, Maurice is a vicious bully and Mam is struggling with a wee bairn and his porridge – all rich with potential but the plot is as paralysed by grief as its characters.

This strange lack of forward momentum is exacerbated by a suite of 17 songs, making for a very hefty score, often accomplished musically but rarely functioning in a meaningful way as musical theatre. They’re not integrated into the narrative so largely feel interchangeable, nor do they cohere to lend that promised folk music aesthetic. Even in a story where not much is ‘happening’, so much more could be done by delving deeper psychologically.

Kathryn Rutherford’s Mam has a striking voice which is a highlight, and Luke Coughlan and Ryan Roy as Dan and Joey battle valiantly with the unmoving weight of much of the show on their shoulders. But there’s nothing they can do to bring direction to a show which has none, no structure evident to guide them or the audience to the story that it is trying to tell. Shelly’s closeness to the material has brought a personal touch but for Porridge Boy to work, he may need others to stir the pot.

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