Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Theatre review: Finian's Rainbow

Can a show be so naff it comes out the other end and becomes cool? Actually the answer is no, cool is in no way on the table, but if you're prepared for enough cheese to floor Wallace and Gromit, you could be in for an entertaining night. It seems Finian's Rainbow is revived fairly regularly in America, where tolerance to high levels of begorrah and bejaysus are higher than here - the Union's is the first professional London production for 50 years. And it's actually not surprising, because I imagine this ridiculous bit of Irish-American whimsy from songwriter Burton Lane and writers E.Y Harburg and Fred Saidy is pretty hard to pull off for British audiences. But that's what Phil Willmott has done, funnily enough by failing to do what he'd intended to: The rights-holders had considered letting him do a rewrite for modern audiences, but changed their minds.

So instead Willmott's production plays the musical absolutely straight, taking us to Rainbow Valley, Kentucky, near Fort Knox. A drought has ruined the tobacco crop and left the workers on the land penniless. But Finian McLonegan (James Horne,) newly arrived from Ireland, has a plan to make everyone rich.

Finian's plan is to plant a crock of stolen leprechaun gold in the general vicinity of Fort Knox, in order for it to grow and multiply. This, in the context of Finian's Rainbow, is what passes for a sensible plot point. Because this is the kind of joyously insane story that also features a leprechaun called Og (Raymond Walsh,) who's gradually turning human, and captures the heart of a local girl with a song ("When I'm Not Near The Girl I Love") about how his affections are easily transferable, and he's basically not that bothered who he ends up with.

The easily-impressed girl in question is Susan (Laura Bella Griffin,) a mute who can only communicate via the medium of interpretative dance. One of her brothers, Henry (David Malcolm,) acts as her interpreter, while the other brother, Woody (Joseph Peters,) is viewed by the people as their potential saviour, for reasons nobody gets round to making clear. Woody is also the love interest for Finian's granddaughter Sharon (Christina Bennington,) but this is all far too innocent for anyone to ask her if there's a reason he's called Woody.

Finian's Rainbow is, in its own way, a cry against racism, puncturing black stereotypes - a maid (Anne Odeke) breaks off her "oh lawdy lawdy massa" speech to tell us she only has to put up with this job another semester to pay her university fees. Of course, it fights racial stereotypes while portraying the Irish as whisky-slugging, begorrah-shouting, riverdancing leprechauns, but you can't have everything.

Finian's Rainbow by Burton Lane, E.Y Harburg and Fred Saidy is booking until the 15th of March at the Union Theatre.

Running time: 2 hour 5 minutes including interval.

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