The Cavalcaders: unnervingly upbeat drama will have you singing

Druid’s new production of Billy Roche’s play hits the right notes

The Cavalcaders

Mick Lally Theatre, Galway

Past and present collide in Billy Roche’s memory play, The Cavalcaders, which opens on the retirement day of shoemaker Terry (Garrett Lombard), who is handing over ownership of his Wexford main street cobbler’s shop to his friend and protege Rory (Naoise Dunbar). Under the musty, chalky glimmer of Ciaran Bagnall’s lights, Roche pulls us back to more promising times, when the pair were still singing together in the barbershop quartet that gives the play its name.

The past, however, was no paradise: the Terry of bygone days that Roche’s play reveals is just as melancholy. The unfolding scenes, which slip in and out of competing timelines, tell us why. Twenty years ago, Terry betrayed the uncle who bequeathed his business to him by sleeping with his wife, and Terry has suffered a similar fate as a cuckold. As he hands over the keys of the shop in the final scene to the seemingly implacable Rory, we cannot help but see a pattern, even as we hope for a better end.

What makes Roche’s play such an interesting piece of work is how, despite the heavy subject matter — which squeezes in plot twists involving suicide, unwanted pregnancy, and terminal illness — The Cavalcaders is a resolutely feelgood drama. Roche achieves this dissonant conspiracy of theme and tone through his musical score, which keeps the audience suspended in nostalgia, puncturing even the darkest of scenes (see, for example, the cruel confrontation between Terry and his young lover Nuala, played by the vulnerable and gritty Éilish McLaughlin, or his casual dismissal of the loyal Breda, brought to life with stoic sensitivity by Amelia Crowley). The score is managed superbly for this Druid Theatre production by musical director Morgan Cooke, and performed with perfect harmony by Lombard and Dunbar, with Sean Kearns’s genial Josie and Tiernan Messitt-Greene’s tense, anxious Ted completing the quartet.

Director Aaron Monaghan conducts the shifting tonal registers with an acute ear for the music’s structural meaning and, a compelling command of the relationship between past events and the present moments of the play. Even in the challenging second act, where the memory device of the dramaturgy descends into chaos, he keeps the audience anchored in the central storyline: Terry’s determination to wallow in his own misery. The success of the production, then, very much depends on Lombard’s performance as Terry. As the deep growling baritone of Lombard’s voice adds richness and depth to the musical numbers, even more critically, it complements Terry’s dark emotional landscape. Between them, Monaghan and Lombard articulate the play as an interior, psychological mirror of Terry’s disintegrating mind.

What this fine production lacks, then, is actually a central flaw of the piece itself: a satisfying dramatic logic or resolution. The Cavalcaders is at heart a contradictory consoling play: an unnervingly upbeat drama about loss and depression that will have you singing, even against your own instincts, all the way home.

The Cavalcaders tours to Hawk’s Well Theatre, Sligo, June 8th; Backstage Theatre, Longford, June 10th; Roscommon Arts Centre, June 12th; Lime Tree Theatre, Limerick, June 15th-16th; Siamsa Tíre, Tralee, June 18th; National Opera House, Wexford, June 21st-22nd June; Theatre Royal, Waterford, June 24th; Source Arts Centre, Thurles, June 26th; Pavilion Theatre, Dún Laoghaire, June 29th-July 2nd

Sara Keating

Sara Keating

Sara Keating, a contributor to The Irish Times, is an arts and features writer