The Cavalcaders

The Cavalcaders by Billy Roche in a Nomad Theatre Production.Photo by Brian Farrell

The Cavalcaders by Billy Roche in a Nomad Theatre Production.Photo by Brian Farrell

The Cavalcaders by Billy Roche in a Nomad Theatre Production.Photo by Brian Farrell

The Cavalcaders by Billy Roche in a Nomad Theatre Production.Photo by Brian Farrell

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. 
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The Cavalcaders by Billy Roche

25th October- 7th December

Produced by Nomad Theatre Network in association with Decadent Theatre Company
In On tour


Directed by Andrew Flynn

Music and Sound Design: Carl Kennedy

Lighting Design: Mike O’Halloran

Set Design: Owen MacCarthaigh

Costume Design: Petra Bhreatnach

With: Garrett Keogh, Robert Bannon, Liam Heffernan, Dermot Murphy, Marion O’Dwyer and Jane McGrath 


Roscommon Arts Centre

Previews: 24th Oct

Opening: 25th Oct

Continues: 26th Oct


Civic Theatre Tallaght

29th Oct – 2nd Nov


The Linenhall Arts Centre 4th & 5th Nov


An Grianan Theatre

8th & 9th Nov


Hawk's Well Theatre Sligo

12th & 13th Nov


Mullingar Arts Centre

15th & 16th Nov


Riverbank Arts Centre

19th & 20th Nov


Backstage Theatre Longford 

22nd & 23rd Nov


Droichead Arts Centre

26th & 27th Nov


Ramor Theatre Virginia

29th & 30th Nov


DraĆ­ocht Arts Centre

3rd & 4th Dec


Pavilion Theatre

5th - 7th Dec