A recent bit of sleuthing by a Sunday paper uncovers a ‘first-time’ crime writer as billionaire children’s writer J.K. Rowling. From initial sales of 1,500 to rocketing to the top of best-seller lists on this revelation, clearly one’s name helps in shifting copies. On a Galway stage during the 2013 Arts Festival, the writer of a children’s show is also a Booker Prize nominee and infamous progenitor of dark, murderously claustrophobic, adult worlds. A famous name must help in pushing this ambitious new musical for children - although it may, in this case, explain why many of the audience were unaccompanied adults. Patrick McCabe’s little-publicised 1985 work for children, The Adventures of Shay Mouse, is one of his first published titles and pre-dates his The Butcher Boy by several years, and it is now adapted for the stage and transformed into a musical for huge cast by Galway Youth Theatre and Galway Community Theatre.
Pipe-smoking, slick-talking, paunch-patting culchie Shay Mouse (Jarlath Tivnan) lives in Bornacoola Wood near Longford and entertains his friends, Brady Badger, Mickey Slug and all the forest animals with absurdly dramatic but fictional accounts of his heroic escapades. All listeners are thoroughly smitten with him until King Pat of the Rats arrives with a retinue of sinister followers, enslaves the woodland inhabitants and creates totalitarian ‘Rodentia’. Shay Mouse fails miserably to protect his followers and exposes himself as a fraud and coward and he leaves in shame. His ensuing road trip is both a literal and figurative voyage of discovery. He confounds a fox, destroys a squirrel-baiting racket, rescues a tadpole, liberates some dogs, and returns to experience a suitably and predictably satisfying reversal of fortunes in the finale.
McCabe’s extraordinary characters that post-date this work make it tempting to search the text for darker depths: archetypes of the insurgent-takes-out-Cromwellian-invader sort or dangerous psychotic who eventually acts out violent, cartoon-like fantasies, perhaps. Where are the clues that this playwright is the same creator of Francie Brady? Shay is troubled by an over-active imagination whilst living in a rather quiet rural back-water, the writing is lyrical on occasions (particularly in the poetic recitations of place names and the journey travelled), and the lovelorn pigeon recluse living in a box is rather self-consciously surreal. However, The Adventures of Shay Mouse is just a simple coming-of-age, ‘good versus evil’ yarn: a light morality play, well suited for a young audience.
The simple narrative pattern (protagonist meets stranger, overcomes challenge set, becomes self-aware) unremarkable dialogue and rather one-dimensional characterisation also fit the stylisation inherent in musical theatre. Stereotypical characters are fleshed out through Carl Kennedy’s music; chorus work adds energy; the pace of the work is nudged along by the musical motifs. Embracing this genre, Andrew Flynn’s ensemble chorus work is perhaps one of the more distinctive features of the production. He uses his troupe to sculpt dramatic and imaginative tableaux at the start, creates novel and surprising ways of getting characters on stage, and is never repetitive in the way he effects the scene changes with his crowd of performers, all of whom demonstrate commitment and belief in the work.
Jarlath Tivnan, adopting a broad Midland’s brogue, relishes his role of boastful fraud who eventually lives up to his own hype. Tivnan treats that role and his audience with respect, with no patronising elements and a performance of controlled physicality with impressively flexible vocal abilities. He clearly enjoys himself without a morsel of self-indulgence and he was heartily cheered on by his audience.
Thirty-five performers crammed into the tiny Nuns Island Theatre must be a logistical nightmare for stage manager Mary Mannion and although everyone copes, the production/creative team (an additional forty members or so!) will be grateful for their eventual transfer to the Town Hall Theatre in August. Certainly the visual impact of such numbers will be much stronger and the pace will pick up. Designer Mary Doyle’s set may also be given appropriate space to be seen. Recognising that this is a very early review in a longer run, there are also areas where the discipline and unity of the troupe work will improve over time.
This lively and promising piece needs editing, though. At nearly two hours including the interval, it tests the attention span of its target audience. And yet the (younger) consultant-reviewers who attended this performance are still re-enacting key scenes a week later. In fact, the line "my name is Shay from Bornacoola" complete with twang, pillow up the shirt and hands on hips has become a rather grating catchphrase in its popularity and incessant repetition and will have to be banned from the house shortly. Now surely that has to be the sign of a good show?