This production was reviewed on 24th April, 2010; it is currently being revived for a short tour, October 2010 - see opposite for tour dates.
If banks need the descent of a billionaire Nama to rescue them from the doldrums, then theatre audiences need the occasional light whimsy to jollify the bits avant-garde art doesn’t always tickle. Kevin Barry celebrates the ‘deus-ex-machina’ most literarily with a genie from a lamp in Burn the Bad Lamp, his short story adapted for the stage by himself and Rod Goodall, produced for Cúirt 2010. The resultant work, a quirky consort between puppetry and actor, is a thoroughly warming theatrical frivolity.
Ralph Coughlan is an antique antiques dealer, who, like his wares and his wig, has seen better days. Daily life is a litany of petty struggles: evading an aggressive animatronic vending machine; negotiating with a surly newspaper seller; struggling to raise the creaking shutters of the shop; trying to make his objet d’art more antique and less junk; having sandwiches with a dead dog; then finally making the weary return to a recalcitrant wife at the end of each dreary evening. All Ralph really wants is “one outstanding day”, and the discovery of a rare bicycle lamp with its resident genie provides the means by which Ralph’s internal beauty flowers.
There is really no better word than ‘whimsical’ with which to tag this play. It is as if it were written to enliven a definition: “slightly odd or playfully humorous, especially in an endearing way”. Barry’s script is a gentle, humane work, with tender humour marked by the occasional sudden spike of surrealist imagination. Even the language belongs more to fairytale than experiment: scarcely an expletive, pun or sensual string of alliterative sentences; at most we get the odd internal rhyme (“deliciously viscous”) that betrays the writer’s literary heritage. Barry’s understated writing and love of story is a thorough contrast with the linguistic high-jinks played by “dirty-realism’s” fashionably flash playwrights.
Matthew Guinane has crafted idiosyncratic, eccentric puppets with his genie being more curmudgeonly gargoyle than a Sooty or Basil Brush; his works are characters with attitude, drooping Woodbines and sharp beaks. They are deftly wielded by onstage puppeteer Áine Ní Dhroighneáin who soon seems to disappear into the background as her unconventional charges take over. Ineka Abbas’s craftily designed and intricately dressed set links street, newspaper stand and antique shop in one long unity, as well as providing nifty ways for the puppetry and special effects to be worked.
Finally, Rod Goodall weaves his way assuredly through his character’s dog-eared life and cracked bric-a-brac. He seems to have an authentic affection for his unusual character and it is Goodall’s competent management of the denouement and particularly distinctive vocal expertise that creates a climactic moment on a par with any high drama. It is a performance of some pathos that recognises that despite its jovial tone, Burn the Bad Lamp is a tale that hovers tentatively around some fairly profound statements about the onset of aging and an almost Prufrockian death of passion and social alienation.
There will be those who wish to see the rescue of humanity and society achieved through individual struggle, political wrangling or revolution. Burn the Bad Lamp, on the other hand, is magical realism that proposes supernatural intervention as the answer to depression - both fiscal and mental. It may skirt around some of the harsher realities of life but it is a spirited and unashamedly positive pick-me-up.