Billy Roche’s The Cavalcaders was first staged in Dublin in 1993, and is a play conceived from the
playwright’s boyhood memories of a local shoemaker’s shop, a handful of songs he composed on a
piano that was saved from a fire, his brother’s imagined showband, and the effect of three books he
was reading at the time, including T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland. With such an assortment of influences,
it is no surprise that The Cavalcaders is teeming with endless twists and turns, and characters
that harbour limitless levels of emotional turbulence beneath their seemingly mundane lives: a
hairdresser, a shoe-maker and a shopkeeper. Decadent Theatre Company handles this composite
play extremely well, unravelling the knots of the intricate plot with balanced but generous
expression and intelligent discernment. On the twentieth anniversary of its first performance, this
riskily elaborate play is produced in a fresh, bold and tidy fashion.
Owen MacCarthaigh’s set is wonderfully unmethodical as a rundown cobbler’s shop in Wexford,
with an opaque window stage right and a tall semi-transparent backdrop allowing Mark O’Halloran’s
lighting design to elucidate the finer details in the room and to create a magnificent silhouette of
floor-to-ceiling old shoes that make up the back wall of the shop. Within these charming confines,
and before a word is even uttered, the sense of history and of story is distinctive, and you can almost
smell the shoe polish.
The play opens with Terry (Garrett Keogh), whom the playwright terms “The Arthur of the piece”, as
he quietly embraces his final moments in the shop in wake of his retirement. The eager young Rory
(Robert Bannon), who started out as Terry’s assistant and is taking over the shop, buzzes round him
with an irrepressible sense of next generation hope and renovation. Terry’s introspection, however,
overcomes the action in the present and we are transported back almost a decade to the “innocent
old days” where the story of The Cavalcaders, the cobbler-shop quartet, begins.
Following the quartet leader, Terry, and Rory, we meet the two other members comprising the
amateur group: the endearing Josie (Liam Heffernan), the oldest of the men, and who enjoys
a few jars after work (both before and after rehearsals), and the quiet, unassuming young Ted
(Dermot Murphy), who plays the piano and pens the group’s original songs. After work the men
gather round the piano in a corner of the shop to rehearse their songs, which act as delightful
interludes within the play and contain some impressively tight-knit harmonies, charmingly um-pah-
pah accompaniments and heart-felt falsetto solos by the frivolous Rory (music and sound by Carl
Behind these harmonious rituals, some of which take place in the presence of local hairdresser and
bubbly acquaintance Breda (Marion O’Dwyer), is an unlikely and surreptitious love affair ensuing
between Terry and the young shopkeeper Nuala (Jane McGrath), who is at least 30 years younger
than him. We learn, through explosive and unsettling confrontations between Nuala and Terry, of
her excessive need for his love, her desire to come clean about their relationship to the community,
and her obsession with his estranged wife who left him for his best friend. When Terry rejects her
with cruel invectives as a result of his deep rooted lingering scars, she threatens to kill herself, and
the profound vulnerability of both characters is exposed in the play for the first time: “I’m only using
you,” Terry tells her, “I don’t really feel anything for anyone.”
Keogh plays the complex Terry with exceptional poise, and manages to make his cruelty towards
Nuala almost excusable in how brilliantly he suggests the inner grief of his character. While McGrath
is pitch-perfect in her portrayal of Nuala, such refinement actually makes the mental fragility and
instability of her character less credible at times. Marion O’Dwyer’s dynamic stage presence, as
always, captures full attention, with her vocalisation as Breda providing almost as much colour and
nuance as the songs themselves.
The plot in the second half of the play tilts top heavily towards unnecessary complexity, with
numerous off-stage characters and incidents serving to anchor the direction of the narrative.
We hear more and more of ‘Uncle Eamon’ and the antics of his newly wedded wife involving
Terry and Josie when they were younger, of the local undertaker ‘Poe,’ of a Frenchman called
Jacques LePouvier and of Rory’s wife Ursula, with whom Ted was having an affair. Furthermore,
on discovering a past love interest between Terry and Breda (one that is to ignite again in the
conclusion of the play), and the offstage death by suicide of the pregnant Nuala, the plot seems to
knot itself up again in the last half hour of the play. While the oscillations between past memories
and present moments are fluid and clear-cut under the taut direction by Andrew Flynn, the
ending of the two-hour play landed too many obscure off-stage bombshells to merit a satisfactory
conclusion. While the tail end of Roche's initially promising plot is overly heterogenous for my liking,
the production was superb.
Jennifer Lee holds an MPhil in Theatre and Performance from Trinity College and is director of an Academy of Performing Arts in Kildare.