It's 1964 in rural Ballybeg in Ireland and 25-year-old Gar O'Donnell is preparing for the most important night of his life. Tomorrow, the young lad - whose mother died just three days after his birth - will get the early milk lorry to Dublin Airport and board a flight to America to start a new life in Philadelphia.
He's excited, but inwardly terrified. nervous, apprehensive with a nagging doubt: has he made the right decision? Should he go or should he stay? In Brian Friel's play, Philadelphia, Here I Come, performed by the Abingdon Drama Club, Gar's inner turmoil is brilliantly brought to life in theatrical terms - by dividing his character into a public person and private inner self, played by two actors. Thus, while Gar lies on his bed listening to music and contemplating his future, his private conscience paces up and down, ranting through his real thoughts, fears and wishes.
And during that critical night, we encounter the small world that Gar is desperate to escape - from his uncommunicative elderly father (wonderfully played by Keith Hales): his childhood sweetheart Kate (Stephanie Kennedy) - their relationship is doomed because her parents considered Gar too lowly - his drinking pals, and his faithful housekeeper Madge.
Ahead of him lies the American Dream, while his present life is unremarkably dull, working in his father's hardware business. Above all, Gar seeks something from his father - a sign or token of love - but as the morning draws nearer, the moments to bond fritter away.
Director Colette Lardner-Browne is ably assisted by a wonderful cast which brings rural Ireland alive on the stage of the Unicorn Theatre. The play is touching, thought provoking and full of Irish wit without becorning "Oirish".
Acting praise must go to Dominic Ryan and Allen Dannfald as the two sides of Gar, and Eileen Bagshaw as the marvellous Madge.
Roy Cooper - Abingdon Herald - 28/3/02
I must admit that my first reaction on hearing that The Abingdon Drama Club was to perform Philadelphia Here I Come was to ask' What is the point of putting on a play about emigration and poverty in Ireland at a time when Ireland is glorying in its economic success and dealing with problems of immigration rather than emigration?"
On entering The Unicorn Theatre, I was immediately impressed by the authenticity of Malcolm Ross's sets. So much attention was paid to details that although the audience could not see the hallway, I felt that portraits of Pearse and Kennedy hung either side of the hall door. Jane Cadogan's costumes enhanced this evocation of the Ireland of the 1960's. An example of the thought that went into the costumes was Gar Public's wristwatch. It was a very authentic accessory with missing loop, leaving Gar uncomfortable with it and so drawing attention symbolically to his unease with time itself.
Ironically this effective re-creation of Ireland as it was forty years ago, for me, set the production free from its time constraints and any fears that it might seem dated soon evaporated.
The committed and convincing playing of the cast answered any lingering doubts about the wisdom of choosing to produce this play at this time. While I fear that Dominic Ryan will fail to get a part in 'Riverdance' his assured portrayal of Gar Public was a treat. In particular, he mastered the art of matching his body language to the words of Private. He presented the range of Public's emotions culminating in the expression of his frustrated disappointment as S.B. worried about the colour of the boat rather than the emotions of Gar's memory of the moment on the lake. Gar Private was convincingly played by Allen Dannfald. 1 was very impressed by the way he dealt with the Burke quotations, juxtaposing the grandeur of the French Court with the tawdriness of Ballybeg in a vain effort to control his welling emotions. Stephanie Kennedy's Kate captured the disillusionment of her position as she told Gar that she heard no complaints from King. She conveyed clearly her awareness of being let down by Gar's lack of maturity. Although obviously a success in life, she is conscious that she is a victim of the men in Ballybeg. These include her father, ably played by Malcolm Ross whose demeanour clearly indicated the scheming greed of the politician Rob Purbrick's Boyle captured the poignant disillusionment of this failed romantic. I pitied him as he swallowed his pride to ask Gar for money. The interaction between Gar and Boyle was wholly convincing especially as Gar became embarrassed by his emotional collapse. Malcolm Ross's portrayal of the canon as a buffoon completed for me the feeling that Gar had been horribly let down by Church, State and his education. The funniest moments in the play were provided by the American Visitors. The timing and interplay of Nathaniel Tagg, Michael Ward and Lynne Smith was from the top drawer. The bitter irony of the moment when Lizzy listed herself among the dead was highlighted by the reaction of her companions. Alan Dewar, Daniel Goddard and Chris Hall captured the pathetic existence of the lads. Adam was convincing as the brash Ned, suitably worshipped by the idiotic Tom. Chris Hall stole the scene with his delivery of the line that he could not leave home until the sycamores grew high enough. This focussed my mind on the paucity of their situation more than anything else in the play.
Eileen Bagshaw was an excellent Madge. Her comic timing was excellent throughout. I felt her stage presence and confident portrayal to be pivotal to the success of this production. The audience was clearly convinced by her confused and disappointed return from her visit to the new baby.
Such realistic moments of the production were set off against the expressionism of the dual Gars and the flashbacks. This aspect of the play was enhanced by simple effective lighting and by a well-chosen and integrated sound track. The direction of Colette Lardner-Browne achieved the delicate balance between comedy and pathos required to examine the themes of this play.
You might think that I have forgotten something. I haven't. I have simply kept the best wine until last. Keith Hales' portrayal of S.B. answered all my questions. Mocked by Private, misunderstood by Public and berated by Madge, his inane repetitive utterances marked him out as a pathetic figure of fun.
Amidst the pointless talk of rat traps, tinkers and sugar bags, his staring blue eyes spoke to me of a veiled but vibrant human dignity. The most telling moment of the play was when the Canon finally repeated Madge's mocking words. Hales automatically answered but his face expressed the painful realisation of his loss. This understanding of the tragic consequences of the inability to express emotions to others especially to those we love is the universal and timeless message at the heart of 'Philadelphia Here I Come'
Congratulations to all involved in conveying this message.
Stephen Donnelly - English Teacher at The European School - 20/3/02