Review: The Man in Two Pieces

Stephen Brennan steals all the scenes in this study of a showman

The Man in Two Pieces

TheatreUpstairs, Dublin


It is hard enough to say what makes a man, so what hope is there to ever define a showman? That teasing question occupies Gerard Adlum’s deft debut play for Fast Intent, the story of a 14-year-old boy in 1920s Ireland who really does run away with the circus. More precisely, it’s a vaudeville show, featuring a strong man (“The Italian Adonis”), a mesmerist (“The Great Gustavo”), and a narrative-fixated emcee, song-and-dance man and all-round impresario, Kerrigan.


Articulate as the narrator, but a cutesy wide-eyed mute as the boy, Adlum also plays the strongman (in reality a haunted lughead from Sligo) and the mind-bender (a driven Northern-Irish professional). But the most spellbinding performer here is Kerrigan, and his casting is perfect: Stephen Brennan.

The big-top tatters of Rebekka Duffy's set may warmly underline Adlum's nostalgia, which is really for the escapism of performance lifting small-town horizons: "I deal in magic; the real thing," says Kerrigan, drilling up business. Brennan, a consummate performer, lets you admire the skill of an illusion-peddler, and he and director Sarah Finlay make Kerrigan plummy, hammy and endearingly vain, without ever mocking him. It's a performance both amusing, affecting and close to the bone. Just as circus seems forever on the brink of obsolescence, so does theatre: There, but for the grace of box office, go us all.

Adlum sets his sights, less certainly, on a tumultuous time. The troupe sets out for Midleton, flash point of the Irish Civil War, while somehow hoping to avoid politics. Kerrigan’s belief, which seems to be Adlum’s, is that entertainment is heroically neutral. But even his tent is coming apart for political reasons, torn between the sagging complacency of the Adonis and the progressive ambitions of Gustavo. It might have been a microcosm of a riven Ireland, at another time of uncertain transition, and it’s encouraging to think where Adlum might go next if given bigger dramatic scope for his ideas.

Echoes of Faith Healer, in which another performer attempts a fateful homecoming, suggest a more invested meditation on performance itself, though, where Kerrigan's motto exalts its ephemerality. "We're here, no notice. We're gone, no trace." That also preserves Kerrigan's mystery, with little personal history but a tissue of well-spun yarns, few convictions but to entertain. If there is something surprising about his own escape act, in a slightly soft send off, it is that anything could ever weigh him down.

Until Apr 18

Peter Crawley

Peter Crawley

Peter Crawley, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes about theatre, television and other aspects of culture