Stars explained: * A production of no real merit with failings in all areas. ** A production showing evidence of not enough time or effort, or even talent, and which never breathes any real life into the piece – or a show lumbered with a terrible script. *** A good enjoyable show which might have some small flaws but has largely achieved what it set out to do.**** An excellent show which shows a great deal of work and stage craft with no noticeable or major flaws.***** A four star show which has found that extra bit of magic which lifts theatre to another plane.
Half stars fall between the ratings

translations top


The Loft, Leamington Spa


The Loft has done it again.

And once more, it is Ireland - in the form of Brian Friel's 1980 play Translations - one of a series he set in his adoptive Donegal - that has yielded a Loft production of the highest possible standard. Five stars, no question about it. A five star masterpiece.

True, in fractionally over a century the Loft has consistently proved its all-but professional excellence in a host of different genres: American 20th century masterpieces; Sondheim Musicals; Central-European classics; Scandinavian tensions and obsession; the Russians; Jacobean drama; Restoration Comedy; Barrie, Coward and Novello; Murder mystery; Kitchen Sink drama; Ayckbourn; Pinter; challenging, hair-raising, risqué up-to-the-minute English theatre (Hare, Bond, Brenton, Bennett); unearthed repertoire scarcely explored by other companies. Greek Tragedy (possibly not Comedy); Shakespeare.

But one of this unstoppable, resilient, supercharged, company's specialities - and uniquely consistent hits - is the British Isles' Celtic fringe. South of the border, Wales naturally: Dylan Thomas's Under Milk Wood (coming up soon: opens on Saturday 30 March and runs to 6 April, Details) in the masterly David Fletcher's production, with 14 actors portraying a load of leek- or daffodil- flavoured eccentrics.

Above all, the Loft has plunged into, and triumphed in, the gems of Irish drama. Looking for Juno and the Paycock? Lame, drunk, self-justifying oddities, with Phil Reynolds often in attendance? Here you'd find all three of O'Casey's greatest. Dion Boucicault, Wilde, Synge, Shaw, Joyce. Paradox or dustbins in Beckett (Endgame; Happy Days; though bizarrely, Waiting for Godot, even though they've staged many excellent four-handers, doesn't appear on their website's beautifully and lovingly tended archive.

One of Brian Friel's (1929-2015) highest accolades was to be dubbed 'Ireland's Chekhov'. You could see why here, in Tom O'Connor's magnificently crafted staging of his Translations. Magnificently worded, too: to drive home its point he contemplated writing it in Irish (brogue); it was for the same reason - to hammer his intermingled themes home all the more, and to a wider audience - that he elected rather to shape it in English.

Friel's outstanding, not always (in the UK) perceived importance in Ireland's phenomenal theatrical tradition involved company creation, management, and collaboration as well as his plays and subject material themselves. The cast of Translations' 1980 premiere included Liam Neeson as Doalty, Ray McAnally (Hugh, the play's Falstaff), and above all Friel's ensemble co-Founder Stephen Rea (Owen).

trans mid

Cast around for performers to match those. Yet here at the Loft we were staggered by Connor Bailey's Doalty, Craig Shelton (as Hugh), and Christopher Stanford (playing Owen) not merely rising to the standards of that immortal trio (tragically we lost McAnally in 1989, aged 63: he would be two years short of a century now), but equalled by all the others. Ten roles, all carried off at the Loft with little short of brilliance.

It's not always you can catch every word in the Loft's intimate and inviting ambience. But nearly always. Here the quality of the speaking - the delivery - of the cast, from the fascinating and lengthy opener between Manus (Simon Truscott (terrific) and chairbound yet sprawling, Greek and Latin-spouting old stager Jim, or rather Jimmy Jack (Rod Wilkinson, a continuous masterpiece of acting, not least when he hilariously and not soberly misses his seat in the Third Act, then conducts the rest of his vociferous exchanges from the floor, with others joining him), to the play's slightly enigmatic, sudden close - was universally superb.

With top-class, never drooping Irish accents all round (no speech trainer credited, though perhaps someone highly successfully took charge of that aspect; actually there's a distinct (quite gentle) 19th century County Donegal accent, or accents, which rather matched their carefully uniform diction), you had to hand it to this cast: the RSC couldn't have carried it off better.

If the whole enterprise was splendid, gestures from everybody varied, apt, expressive, and moves cultivated with finesse, egged on by superb Director O'Connor, it was to him, who did so much to make moods secure, atmosphere gripping even amid the non-combative exchanges, pacing (including a few very telling pauses or silences) as perfect as could be, that a huge amount is owed.

Yet almost eclipsing everything, it must be said, is owed strongly to Richard Moore's rather expressionistic, awing set, abetted by the shifting lights and heavenward colours of Dave Barclay and Jay Patel's lighting scheme. The sky was an adventure in itself, lightening, darkening, paused midway, with clouds and distant hills (restrained: Donegal is not Connemara) evoking pure blue empyrean, then fading, occluded, misted over, periodically reflecting ingeniously the action's alternating moods; and for a time a captivating moon hovering above. Surely one of their best. 

The shack like back entrance, a sort of undefined wall (no kitchen sink here), with jagged-topped wooden fence work providing just the one ground floor entry (how effective, given that in many a different play that might be a deficit), seemed to have escaped from Dunsinane and their first-rate recent Scottish play. Peasant-riddled clothes (Helen Brady mainly) as so often masterfully sourced, and superb.

There was somehow no indoors and no outdoors, though the latter was patently implied by the entry of British officers: the affable though behind it all dangerous Ordnance Survey cartographer Captain Lancey (Mark Roberts), his and son Owen's on-the-floor map-exploring (like various Norwich allusions) one of the play's more comic sequences, yet later grotesquely transformed Black and Tan forerunner (50 more soldiers on their way), and more.


All the military bit Victorian anticipation of the Parnell era, next 1916, then De Valera versus the British then Collins (think of Alan Rickman and Liam Neeson), and finally the Troubles, ten years underway when Friel wrote the play).

Roberts his always excellent, often imperious self (and, it has been often said, remarkably like Henry VIII in later years: perhaps the Loft should try out that rarely seen late Shakespeare; they have done Winter's Tale - thrice- and Pericles (2000).

But perhaps most importantly, Friel sets Translations in the 1830s, by which time the devastating Irish potato famine (1845-52) has not yet struck..

Tamely deferential but increasingly important, is the English lieutenant (Ted McGowan), romantically drawn (only partly by love for the strongly, representatively Irish Maire) to the island he is suppressing ("A little girl yesterday - she spat at me"). Once stripped of his redcoat garb yet in white shirt and braces still to a degree Wellingtonian English - McGowan embarked on a notably impressive performance. Paradoxically we seem to have lost Manus by this stage: could that be a structural weakness in the plot?

The excellent girls - and, with their interactions carefully spaced, they were equally important - included not just Leonie Slater's decisive then hesitant then again decisive Maire, but Bea Shelton as Sarah and Sophie Lorraine's Bridget, their pacing no less significant in providing contrast in mood and adding sundry ingredients to the play, question marks as well as statements.

One riveting performance, on every appearance, is Craig Shelton's Hugh: the boozy father, in his inebriation happily or duellingly taking on his other, more concessionary son Owen (Christopher Stanford) as well as Truscott's more headstrong, but often right, pugnacious aspiring teacher Manus (significantly meaning 'great', like Roman-Scottish 'Magnus'), who is the elder, though younger-seeming brother.

Shelton (thanks to Moore and O'Connor) made the best use of the upstairs stairway, which yielded some of the more comic entries in a play not over-endowed with comedy (though allowing for Jimmy Jack's Odyssey preaching: Wilkinson, abetted by Truscott, made huge fun of all this, making Act I both fast-moving and entrancing).

Every exchange contributed to the Friel's sometimes mixed, even for an audience (rather than revisitable on the page) muddling, onward development. Yet one was never in doubt we were in the presence of, immersed in, a theatrical masterpiece. That such homely material was believably deemed to dip into explore so many layers and issues. we owed rewardingly to the Loft's entire team: cast and creatives, as the slightly pi but now ubiquitous phrase runs.

This was a top rate staging by any standards. Yes, the Loft has done it again, equalling or even excelling its best. With glorious Irish folk music (violin, button accordion - John and Carmel Burke) to frame the whole, one couldn't ask for better.

Roderic Dunnett


Home Reviews A-Z Reviews by affiliate