Last week I travelled to the Civic Theatre in the heart of the new township of Tallaght for the first night of John MacKenna’s latest play, ‘Corner Boys’. The theatre, part of the complex of buildings which were built up around the Tallaght Square shopping development is a cultural oasis. In an incongruous setting it stands almost as a beacon of light, reflecting well on the community which however seems to make greater use of the nearby cinema complex than it does of the theatre itself. I journeyed up the motorway somewhat apprehensively, wondering as to whether our local writer who has given us some wonderful literary works could once again provide a memorable night of entertainment. John MacKenna’s previous play, ‘Who By Fire’, received enthusiastic responses from his audiences last year, but less than favourable comments from the critics who seem more perplexed than enlightened by what they saw.
‘Corner Boys’, the writer tells us, is a play of laughter, love, missed opportunity and tragedy. Clearly the whole gamut of human emotion seems to have found a voice and a setting in his play, if the advance publicity is to be believed. It’s a play about the lives of ordinary people and people certainly did not come any more ordinary than the corner boys which once populated the street corners of provincial Ireland of past years.
If you are of an age which started out in the decades before television captured the minds and eyes of the Irish people you will have seen the corner boys. MacKenna’s play is located on a street corner in nearby Castledermot, but here in Athy we had two prime street corners where our local corner boys congregated each day without fail. Carolan’s Corner and O’Rourke-Glynn’s Corner were the focal points for the men who, no matter what age they were, and some were quite old, were always referred to and readily identified as corner boys. They stood there, apparently motionless, their backs to the wall, watching, observing, recognising, and where recognition did not come, enquiring amongst themselves. Their world was encompassed within the horizons of their vision, their eyes looking up and down the street, seldom moving, seldom missing, always recording, even if not always understanding.
Their commentary on the comings and goings in the street passed for conversation. They were for the most part quiet, seldom if ever garrulous as they stood with hands in trousers pockets, removed only to retrieve a cigarette from the mouth, sometimes balancing on one leg with the other leg extended behind and resting against the wall.
Traffic movement in the days of the corner boys was unlike the continuous cavalcade we have come to know today. The sparse traffic moved slowly, allowing time for those passing to be identified and the strangers to be noted. Comments were the life blood of the community of corner boys. Their minds no doubt struggled to maintain a balance between observing, commenting and ruminating and in this way the day passed. What I wondered would the fertile imagination of the former teacher from Castledermot come up with in a play centered on the dialogue of men who spent their days hanging around the corners of small towns and villages.
It was the famous theatrical critic of the 1940’s, James Agate, who described the essence of theatre as ‘excitement shared in company and moreover excitement packed into something under three hours.’ After the 1½ hour performance, with a 15 min. interval of ‘Corner Boys’, I could not but admit that John MacKenna had by Agate’s definition captured the essence of theatre with his latest play. This was a play punctuated during it’s first half particularly, by raucous laughter as the audience reacted, at least most of them did, at the ribaldry of the three corner boys, and occasionally the antics of the two girls acting out their roles as shop assistants. The second half of the play swung the audience’s emotions the other way as the reality of the disappointed lives of the young people unfolded in scenes which were tense and devoid of the frivolity and merriment of the play’s opening.
The play’s theme is difficult to define. That in some strange way is one of the strength’s of MacKenna’s work. The interpretation of what you see and hear allows for different conclusions. Is it the questionable struggle of the genders which shows in the character of Alice the indomitable strength of the female contrasting with the weakness of the corner boys? Is it a story of love and jealously amongst a small group within a provincial town, or a story of hopelessness emphasised in the words of one of the actors who complains that ‘poverty is a life sentence – the only way to get time off is to die young’.
‘Corner Boys’ is a fine piece of work which one must see in its entirety to appreciate. The opening scenes, if seen in isolation, might lead one to conclude that it was nothing more than a vehicle for a few old male jokes and less than savoury male-type behaviour. The truth however, is that John MacKenna has written a fine piece for the theatre and happily the players under the direction of Marian Brophy have done his work justice. The one scene, which coming in the middle of the first act, seemed not to fit in as well as the rest of the play was the Parish Priest’s sermon in which he tells his parishioners how they should live their lives. This for me was the only part of the play which did not come across as well as the director and the author might have hoped.
A good play, with excellent direction by Marian Brophy of Carlow, was further enhanced by strong acting by Cora Fenton playing the part of Alice Dungan, and Charlie Hughes playing her brother Billy. Cora Fenton was exceptionally good and John MacKenna, himself a fine actor, gave a performance which was overshadowed by his two colleagues. Noel Lambe gave one of his best performances to date and newcomer Teresa Cahill can be well pleased on her debut role with the ‘Water to Wine Theatre Company’.
A well written play, with good performances by the five actors and excellent direction by Marian Brophy should ensure a successful tour for ‘Corner Boys’. It will come to the Town Hall Athy for three nights commencing on 3rd March, Dunamaise Theatre Portlaoise on Thursday 14th February, Eire Óg Hall Carlow on 8th March, finishing in the Moate Club Naas on 14th and 15th March. A total of 22 venues will be toured by the company between 6th February and 15th March, with what promises to be a very successful play for the Castledermot-born writer. You should go and see it at a venue near you.