The Bluffer’s Guide to Suburbia review: Returning emigrant dissects his home in sprawling style

Dublin Theatre Festival: Ray Scannell’s ambitious musical drama is performed with aplomb but lacks focus

The Bluffer’s Guide to Suburbia: a piece of sensory, stimulating theatre. Photograph: Colm Hogan

The Bluffer’s Guide to Suburbia: a piece of sensory, stimulating theatre. Photograph: Colm Hogan

 

THE BLUFFER’S GUIDE TO SUBURBIA

Cube, Project Arts Centre
★★★☆☆
There’s a point in the Bluffer’s Guide to Suburbia where the eponymous character, a returned emigrant musician portrayed by the drama’s author and composer, Ray Scannell, gently mocks an affluent and pretentious old friend for becoming a minimalist. It’s not a charge that can be levelled at Scannell, at least on the evidence of this piece of musical theatre, which is as sprawling and disjointed as it is striking and ambitious.

Having failed to make a success of his musical career in London, the Bluffer, real name Finn, returns to his family home in the Dublin neighbourhood of Clonsilla and is quickly suffocated by the suburban blandness, vacuous consumerism and minimum wage jobs he finds there. Not that the alternative, as personified by his minimalist friend and erstwhile bandmate, is any more appealing. Finn is even more contemptuous of the confident, arty crowd he encounters at his pal’s party. But unsurprisingly, his real loathing is reserved mainly for himself, as he beats himself up over his misfiring life and self-destructively agonises over the veracity of his talent.

As directed by Tom Creed, the drama unfolds in episodic fashion, with Scannell using sharp social observation, impressionistic incantations and indignant polemic as he evokes Finn’s plight. Interspersing the action is a selection of songs, deftly played by Scannell, Peter Power and Christiane O’Mahony. Again, stylistic unity is at a premium. The songs move between evocative electronica, one-note garage punk and solipsistic singer-songwriter fare, all the while alternating as Greek chorus and plot device. 

The array of ideas and forms on show is often absorbing, but also distracting and even gimmicky, much like the imaginative yet cluttered set design. And while Scannell’s charismatic performance holds the attention, the drama tries to fit in too many elements, from personal disappointment to global existential dread and old fashioned state-of-the-nation pronouncements. The inspiration for this encyclopedic stream of consciousness approach is obvious – Finn even returns to Dublin on the Ulysses ferry – but some Beckettian verbal parsimony wouldn’t go amiss either. As a piece of sensory, stimulating theatre, however, the Bluffer’s Guide is the real thing.

Runs as part of the Dublin Theatre Festival until Saturday, October 5th

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