Coppers the Musical: A show with two acts and just as many jokes

Review: The gags that sustain the show are the racial differences between jackeens and culchies

Paul Howard's 'Copper Face Jacks: The Musical' tells the story of Noeleen (Roseanna Purcell), a young Kerry woman who follows her dream of coming to Dublin to work in the VHI claims department.

 

Copper Face Jacks: The Musical
★★★
Olympia Theatre, Dublin 

Apparently, the idea for Copper Face Jacks: The Musical began with the title. And, like many a night out in Dublin, there it appears to have ended. A joke to alleviate the stresses involved with a production about an even more notorious Irish institution, 2012’s Anglo: The Musical, the new venture practically manufactures itself.

It is a tale of star-crossed lovers, a Kerry girl and a Dublin lad, who meet across a dancefloor crowded with GAA jerseys, bootcut jeans and every cliché of the form. Even the opening number has a bittersweet tang of overfamiliarity. “Whoops, I’m Back at Copper Face Jacks,” sing a bright, fleet-footed ensemble on a cartoonish set, redolent of an off-season pantomime, that turns the shape of Harcourt Street into a vanishing point. For a lot of people, it already was.

Writer Paul Howard is best when his mirth for this cultural nexus is most affectionate. Take our introduction to Noeleen (an effervescent Roseanna Purcell) who leaves behind a dismal life of stage Irishness and an even dismaller fiancé (Stephen O’Leary) in Cahersiveen for a cosmopolitan existence working in the claims department of the VHI.

“The canteen is subsidised,” she rhapsodises, with almost erotic charge, in the show’s funniest song.

Perhaps the sharpest innovation, though, is to make its hero so ferociously unlikeable, given the rolling strut and spray-on costumes of Conor McGregor, the anti-culchie mantras of a practiced racist (“They keep to their own and they refuse to learn the language”) and the job of your worst nightmares. Meet Gino Wildes, GAA star, Coppers Casanova and Dublin city clamper. It’s hard to imagine what anybody other than Johnny Ward might have done with the part, so amped, physically precise and comically committed to its leopard-print absurdity that Gino is saved by sheer hilarity.

But other characters are harder to flesh out, like Eoin Cannon’s adorably closeted Jerimiah (a figure who belongs to another time and, most definitely, another club), or Michele McGrath’s man-hating academic feminist, one of dozens of women made pregnant by Gino, who is now a vengeful harpy on the warpath. Director Karl Harpur’s last-minute decision to abandon using puppets can only be considered merciful, but the broad caricatures that remain confuse the tone of the show. Does the musical really mean to patronise gays, vilify feminists and, most troubling of all, humanise clampers?

Then there is the matter of the music. If Coppers itself is synonymous with well-worn tunes, there’s some justification for a score of unapologetic pastiche. (Let’s just hope copyright lawyers for Chicago and My Fair Lady never swing by.) Eventually, composers Dave McCune and Paul Woodfull give up altogether and let the DJ take over, blasting Underworld and an assortment of cheesy dance hits over the showdown: a drinking competition over Noeleen’s honour, the night before the GAA final.

A two act musical with just as many jokes, the gags that sustain the show are the racial differences between jackeens and culchies, and the less than discerning nature of Coppers’ clientele: “It’s true what they say,” marvels one character, “anyone really can score here.” With expectations set about as high, the musical takes that to its logical conclusion. Coppers itself has finally been scored. Get your coats.

Copper Face Jacks: The Musical is at the Olympia Theatre, Dublin, until August 12thh