Writer and director Mick Donnellan knows his audience and they seem to know him. This symbiotic relationship ensures that Shortcut to Hallelujah, Donnellan’s cacophonous paean to pub politics, county football and life in Ballinrobe, strikes a chord with Truman Theatre Company’s large and enthusiastic audience. Farces about rural recession would seem to be a novel and unlikely populist genre that is pulling in punters in the West - especially when they make prolific reference to the Mayo football team.
Like pundits on an anarchically drink-fuelled T.V. sports panel, four scoop-sinking lads assemble in ‘Quinn’s Bar’ to ponder the fate of Mayo as the team prepare to face Kerry in an All-Ireland football final. It is not The Kingdom’s prowess that has fouled Mayo in the past, we learn, but (allegedly) a ‘Tinker’s Curse’ involving a nonagenarian ex team-member. Will the curse lift for the coming final? Will Chris Maguire (Cathal Leonard) awake from his alcohol induced stupor to wrest his deceased father’s field back from land-grabber ‘Bull McCabe’ Black Tom (Sean O’Maille)? Will Maguire’s long-suffering girlfriend, Eimear Clancy (Kate McCarthy) arise, realise that she inhabits a female-friendly twenty-first century, and tell her abusive lover to get lost? “Feck no” is the answer to most of the above, but, despite dabbling in dodgy social politics, there are moments in this modern melodrama of a poignant truth hidden in the poteen haze, the uncomfortable Traveller jibes and the casual sexism of its protagonists.
Donnellan has a fine ear for the lyricism in foul-tongued bar-room natter and also for its dark, self-deprecating humour. Nor is he shy of large dramatic gestures (several coffins and brandished shotguns appear) and of asking hefty questions about life, fights, death, broken relationships, unemployment and emigration.
Above all, he crafts an un-patronising vision of rural claustrophobia. Chris Maguire’s wrestling with his tragic fate and limited outlook is handled with considerable sympathy and understanding. Like his namesake in Patrick Kavanagh’s ‘The Great Hunger’, this Maguire is similarly stuck in a rural quagmire, tied to his land and his county, but, in this case, is also ravaged by drink and emasculated by the rampant unemployment of 2012.
The cast, despite being of varied experience, vocal projection and professional status, works generously. At times the drunken staggers are a little laboured but there is slick comic timing between the quartet of drinkers led by an impressive Cathal Leonard. He is accompanied by Jerry Fitzgerald, Conor MacDonagh-Flynn and Darren Killeen. Sean O’Maille demonstrates surly presence as Black Tom, Gerry Howard grumps convincingly as the barman, and Kate McCarthy does well as Eimear Clancy, particularly in the play’s finest moment as she prepares to leave Ballinrobe and Maguire harangues her with the truth of an émigré’s inability ever to leave behind her culture and find a new sense of belonging.
However, the script does need the attentions of a tougher editorial hand. Donnellan, who also directs, enjoys the banter and jousting between his characters too much, and the pre-match analysis becomes repetitive, and a little facetious. One or two scenes seem out of kilter, and there are occasionally inconsequential plot lines: the appearance of the Travellers seems particularly inexplicable. So, unlike the slightly later and better edited Gun Metal Grey [which was directed by Theresa Leahy], this second work in Donnellan’s trilogy of Ballinrobe plays lacks tautness and is too long. Under all the witter and 'fecks', a serious point about the relationship between social conditioning and aspiration is almost buried.
It’s a shame, because Donnellan is an outrageously confident writer who pays refreshingly little heed to either dramatic ‘correctness’ or, indeed, most aspects of contemporary theatrical conventions. With a mean short-back-and-sides, his lively microcosm of the both the highs and woes of Ireland’s rural hinterland might well be taken up by wider and even larger audiences.