Backwards Up a Rainbow: Rosaleen Linehan still knows how to put on a great show

Review: The gutsy, saucy actor and comedian revisits her life with honesty and humour

BACKWARDS UP A RAINBOW

Pavilion Theatre, Dún Laoghaire
★★★★★
She hasn't lost it. Not the timing – comic and dramatic – nor the divilment or the showbiz. She may be national-treasure material, and over 80 – born the same year as the Constitution, she tells us, though without amendments over the years – but Rosaleen Linehan still knows how to put on a great show and send them home smiling.

The title’s short for Soap Your Arse and Slide Backwards Up a Rainbow, a life-advice song you’d be a stone not to howl at, years after she and her late husband, Fergus Linehan, wrote it.

The show promises songs and stories from their work – and more than delivers. It sails through years of musicals and revues and through her second career as a straight actor. This time her stage partner is the couple's pianist and composer son, Conor Linehan, foil and low-key support, shining gloriously without taking the sheen off her. There are characters and voices and mimicry galore, as expected – but, possibly for her first time in performance, we also get the woman herself, unshrouded, revisiting her own life with honesty, humour, vulnerability and occasional deprecation.

Rosaleen Linehan's late husband, Fergus, is like a third cast member, a constant presence in the songs, the stories, the spirit of the entire undertaking

Her story’s a window into the past: Rosaleen McMenamin, the 1950s university student; a fiercely strict father she managed to bypass to perform; hot water in RTÉ for clerical satire. She sailed to the top of her all-male economics class (the triumph still palpable), but the real path was falling in with another crowd, including Fergus (who also later became arts editor of The Irish Times), Des Keogh (her comedy stage partner for years), the actor and comedian Frank Kelly and the pianist Peter O’Brien. Conor talks about O’Brien with affection and admiration, playing a stonking Macushla and Maple Leaf Rag in tribute.

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Girlish but also gutsy and saucy, often pricking pomposity, Linehan throws in arses and farts, and lots of songs (sometimes with added contemporary references), from the hilarious I Wish I Was a Protestant, through Annulment, to The Spinning Song – about spin doctors – on the harp; “Mary O’Hara I am not,” she says. She also plays guitar for the hilarious rebel ballad The Dog That Died for Ireland.

She talks failures and triumph, their musical Mary Makebelieve, and the thrill of Broadway; and she performs scenes from Mother of All the Behans and Dancing at Lughnasa.

Her late husband is like a third cast member, a constant presence in the songs, the stories, the spirit of the entire undertaking. Towards the end she says that she has told Fergus about the show, and that he's pleased.

Mother and son have an ease and synchronicity – a glance or a note as nudge – that are pleasurable to watch. The audience are hers from before she's onstage, and their warmth and emotion float in the air throughout, flowing into an ovation.

This is a damned impressive 90-minute performance, paced and staged cleverly, with spark and sparkle. Age doesn't come into it. Joyous and bould.

Continues at the Pavilion Theatre, Dún Laoghaire, Co Dublin, until Sunday, September 26th; also livestreamed from Friday, September 24th, to Sunday, September 26th; then available on demand until Sunday, October 10th