Pre-Famine romantic musical Across Blue Waters to be performed in an intimate setting.

This weekend Bunclody in County Wexford witnessed a musical innovation as part of its Bunclody Arts Festival.  The county Wexford festival invited Paul Redmond’s original pre-famine romantic musical called The Promise to perform in the tiny St Aidan’s Hall just off the main street. The innovation was that his original musical has been produced in the Helix in Dublin with a large cast and full production suite and now the writer / composer /actor Redmond had rewritten the musical, renamed Across Blue Waters, to be performed in an intimate setting.

The original Musical had sold out the Helix over five nights back in 2012. It was again staged in Swords Castle in Dublin last year with live muskets, a cast of 10 actors and singers accompanied by a six-piece orchestra and supported by a 20-strong choir. This weekend the choir was down to three, the music was provided by Bryan Mullen and Carmel Whelan (musical and assistant musical directors respectively) and at least one member of cast seemed to hold about five roles. And did we mention the Pike Chorus? No? Of that more later…

Director Conor O’Malley was part of the team that wanted to see if a large scale musical – with a serious plot and strong musical set pieces – could be deconstructed enough to work in what was literally a parish hall.

“There is a stage in this traditional hall,” says O’Malley. “When we visited earlier this year we were shown the layout which consists of a long narrow hall and a high stage – some four feet off the ground. But we wanted to create a very intimate setting and so the stage was used for the musical director and choir and we staged the musical on the flat.”

The result was an epic experience with cast and audience cheek to jowl in the hot summer air this weekend just gone by.

It is hard to describe the musical in a single sentence. There are four love stories but of course the path of true love does not run smoothly. There is a rebel story. There is a back story of revenge and violence and a pivotal moment at a battle of Drisogue. The story itself very cleverly rounds on itself and ties a neat bow at the end – always a winner in a musical or play.

The musical set pieces are very good. The romantic couples have plenty of opportunity to express themselves. The plot advances nicely. The goodies and baddies (although not all are obviously good or bad) square off nicely and mostly in song. There is a super baddie in the character of Mr Tarbert, played by Martin Gallagher, with a wickedly horrible scar across his face. He is truly horrible but also has some very funny scenes too – very important to create conflict in a drama.

At the centre of the story is the couple Sean Collins and his wife Caoimhe. Actors Seamas Griffin and Niamh Carroll carry the musical very well. There is a nice balance of humour and affection – with wifely scoldings and care – to create a believable match. 

Their son, Sean Og played by Paul McLoughlin, falls for the local gentry’s daughter Sonice, who is played by Redmond’s daughter, Ellie. Both display a light touch for humour and romance and despite the incongruity of their pairing it is very real on stage.

The local, or rather imported gentry, are I suspect much kinder to their local charges than might be real but are again played with sincerity by Gerry Noonan (Lord Ulveigh) and Rebekah Shearer (Lady Ulveigh).

Michael Sullivan, also famous for his real life same sex marriage to his friend to avoid inheritance tax, plays a rebel leader with credibility. While Malcolm Bolton, mentioned before for his multiple roles, does a blinder for his assured and tireless roles – I loved the Viking impersonation the best.

Of course, musical drama does need light and contrasting scenes as a relief from the tension and this is provided by Redmond in his role as the cripple O’Shea. His performance draws the most laughter in the musical but he is also allowed a suitably dramatic closure on his role.

The show closes with a handshake of friendship between the English Gentry and Irish Rebel – both recognising the innate equality of man. Without wanting to do a spoiler, the famous transatlantic ship, the Jennie Johnson, makes a guest appearance to spirit off certain characters to the Land of the Free in America. This is based on a true story I may add.

Who steals the show? There are many. Seamus Griffin as Sean Collins is very good. He does pathos, humour and genuine concern. His voice is of course amazing. As an anchor he carries the show and Niamh is very convincing as his wife.

Ellie Redmond is very memorable and is moreover like a carbon copy of UK actress Kiera Knightly.  Her face exudes emotion and she is very watchable.

But overall who stole the show? I have to say the peasant pikemen, er women. On the first night they silently lined up to sing the infamous Men of Erin song with the rest of the cast. Birnam Wood could not have advanced as menacingly. They had been tasked with loudly banging their admittedly vicious looking pikes on the ground during the chorus. On the first night some did and some didn’t. Some sang and some didn’t. The bangs were less than uniform than desired and resembled more erratic submachine gunfire than anything else. They routed back to their seats afterwards.

However, the second night the same chorus, although sweating madly in the unseasonable 25 degrees Celsius in the parish hall at night, took up their positions with attitude and banged their pikes all the same time. It was a 30 second sensation!

Overall an amazing night. The musical has all the elements of major plot driven creation – think Les Mis – but can be performed on an intimate level, right amongst the audience with huge resonance.

And disclosure – I was one of the Pike (wo)men at the performance. The one that banged late and forgot to sing the first night and had the time of her life at the second.

Correction: We didn’t steal the show but I think the show stole our hearts. And that is the way it should be.  We were so honoured to be part of this amazing production and to have a second chance, a second night to get the singing and pike banging in unision. Thanks to the amazing cast, choir and crew of the show.

To invite the Muscial Across Blue Waters to your theatre please contact the writer Paul Redmond:  They are prepared to cross the pond like the fearless characters in the Jennie Johnston before them (although they would be prefer to fly).

To invite the pike (wo)men just message me on @jillianGodsil


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