Writer/Director: Jim Nolan
Reviewer: Westley Barnes
Upon entering the theatre space at the Project Arts Centre for Jim Nolan’s “Dreamland” The Germanic styling of the stage makes a striking impression. Designed by Dermot Quinn the set consisted of an interior of a bar with gaslight covering the surfaces of tightly angled wall structures and what appears to be bomb shattered windows.
Set in Seafield in 1934, the play centres on the idea that individual ideas of self-betterment are suppressed by exterior political exertions in Irish society. 1934 was a troubled time to be Irish, and an even darker time to be a foreigner in Ireland. With this in mind, Jim Nolan has created a group of outsider characters who come together in admiration and defence of each other’s differences. The ringleader of these outsiders is Johnny Kinnane, played by the charmingly iridescent Brendan Conroy, who has light shining out of every word he resonates on stage. Owner of Kinnane’s bar, where the action of the play unravels, Johnny is an Americanised Irishman returned from a failed attempt at living the American dream in Brooklyn. The bar’s only real customers are the Connolly family, Doc (Des Kelly) the comically imbibing village GP, who nearing retirement waits on old men like him to die, Dinny (Conall Keating) a sixteen year-old wannabe jockey who does odd jobs around the bar and Grace (Catherine Walsh) the erstwhile object of Johnny’s affection and mother to Dinny, a car mechanic whose earthy wisdom allow the pipe dreams and nostalgia of the three men to exist without recompense.
The relationship between Johnny and Dinny is representative of the trend in Irish theatre which places two male characters as being dependant on each other’s ambitions as opposed to facing disappointments in the exterior world. Dinny’s ambition to ride local Blueshirt heavy Michael Cassidy’s horse “Ballymore Lass” in the last race of the season is blinded by the fact that the same man might be responsible for his father’s death. The fact that the murder took place at Johnny Father’s dancehall has created an eternal sense of responsibility to rest on Johnny’s shoulders.
Michael Power plays the role of Stefan Henshel, refugee, and is the most sensitively portrayed character in the production. His witnessing of the worst effects of European fascism (memorably acknowledged by Jonny’s line “Whoever stole that Hitler guy’s sweets in the schoolyard has a lot answer for”) give him a steely pragmatic view of the downside of human nature, but a humbling understanding of other’s plight. His developing friendship with Grace Connolly is the play’s most rewarding exhibit of tenderness, and if any hope is genuinely reserved on the part of the audience it is for safe passage for him and his daughter away from divided tensions of Seafield.
Act two kicks off with incredible tension as preparations for the Jazz dance sends all the play’s characters vying for all that is at stake. With the set’s exterior pulled around to the front of Kinnane’s pub, Quinn’s set direction and Barry McKinney’s lighting design at last make way for a sense of joyous relief in a play that showed so much chutzpah and yet promised so much tragedy.
From the ‘Blueshirts’ radical demonstrative assertions of political ruthlessness, to acceptably conservative, self-proclaimed saviours of Austerity Ireland, this party’s is an assimilation which haunts the play and one which echoes in memory long after Jonny Kinnane’s gramophone of “Dream a Little Dream of Me” fades into the ether.
Photo courtesy of Project Arts Centre. Runs until 8th March.