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Review: 'Many Young Men of Twenty' at Alumnae Theatre

Updated: Feb 19


(Photo courtesy of Diane Flanagan. L-R: Daheen Timineed, Tina McCulloch, Emmet Leahy, William Laxamana and Thomas O'Neill)


Staged by Toronto Irish Players


By Joe Szekeres, Chief Toronto Columnist for OnstageBlog and contributor to Slowcity. Member of Canadian Theatre Critics Association.


I’ve always been enamoured with the Irish for their love of life, their singing, their dancing, and their manner of conversing with each other. Outside of seeing a few productions of ‘Dancing at Lughnasa’ over the last few years, I rarely get the chance to see Irish plays. I was certainly up for seeing John B. Keane’s ‘Many Young Men of Twenty’ staged by The Toronto Irish Players which features songs and music throughout but is not classified as a musical.


To set some context for my understanding of ‘Many Young Men of Twenty’, I had to do some research. Playwright Keane (1928-2002) was an Irish pub owner in Listowel, County Kerry, who had based some of the characters in his scripts from the people who attended his bar. From what I gleaned, Kerry would have met many patrons who would emigrate from Ireland to find work in London, England, during turbulent socio-economic times.


The year is 1961 and we are in the back-room bar of a public house in the summer and it’s morning. Tim O’Connell and Sean Treacy’s set design of a small back pub nicely evoked a memory that many life events and moments have transpired here whether happy or not. In the back room I could see pictures of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and a crucifix, so the Roman Catholic presence was strongly felt here.


I liked the gorgeous bar that was placed just slightly off centre with five stools around it. Various posters detailing the wonders of the makers of beer and spirits adorned the walls. Pub like bric a brac was found all around the set. There was a fireplace centre stage and a guitar placed stage left in the back corner. The Gaelic music which underscored the preshow setting was a good touch as I honestly felt that I was not in Toronto. Costume Designer Bernadette Hunt finely captured the earth tone colours in the clothing of a people who were hard workers.


Co-directors Gregory Breen and Tim O’Connell have poignantly envisioned the creation of a love story of many kinds – the love of one’s country, the love of family and home and the love of and for another person. Was it a successful re-creation of a bygone time? Yes, it was for me.

Keane’s text is sometimes wordy exposition, and the first act did take me a few minutes to garner interest in the plot. Once there, I was hooked as I began to develop a connection with many of the characters. I love hearing the Irish dialect and lilt. For future audiences, if you’re not used to it, a gentle reminder that you will have to pay close attention.


I especially liked the opening songs at the top of the show. Gemma Healy-Murphy and Orlaith Ni Chaoinleain are powerful vocalists who hauntingly reminded us through song of the troublesome economic times Ireland has endured. Dan Schaumann’s underscoring of a lone guitar which kept melody was heartrending. This is also where we hear the title song 'Many Young Men of Twenty' for the first time.


(Photo courtesy of Diane Flanagan. L-R: Aaron Walsh and Aoibhinn Finnegan)


We meet gruff village public house owner Seelie Hannigan (a spicy and fiery performance by Donna O’Regan) and her brother, Tom (Martin McGuane) who likes his booze just a tad too much. Mr. McGuane adopts an appropriate undercut of a taciturn nature since his sister appears to do the speaking for them.


We also meet bar maid and single mother Peg Finnerty (Aoibhinn Finnegan) who will not allow her past mistake to cloud her judgments in making decisions for she and her son. For me, Ms. Finnegan maintained a solid and natural consistency throughout her performance. At times, she adopts a saucy comeback retort in her relationships with other patrons of the bar while becoming sentimental in her relationships with the two men who begin to court her and want to win her hand in marriage. I won’t spoil the plot for future audiences and say which two men are in the running for Peg’s hand.


Thomas O’Neill is a delight to watch and to hear his word play as the scoundrel Danger Mullaly (love his first name). The Din family have come to the bar to have a drink with their two sons and wish them well as they leave Ireland to go work in a factory in London. The aloof parents Daheen Timineed (James Phelan) and his wife Maynan (Tina McCulloch) are staunch reminders of the rural lifestyle of chin up and time to move forward in life. Their sons Kevin the eldest (Emmet Leahy) and the youngest Dinny (William Laxamana) fear what lies ahead of them. Peg senses this immediately from the two boys and she begins to quell their initial fears as much as possible before the boys leave.


It’s in the second act where the plot picks up and I was keen to see where the story was headed. A year has passed and there are new people who have come to the bar – Maurice Brown the new schoolteacher (Aaron Walsh), a fortune teller (Anne Harper) and father and son team of the Houlihans, J. J. (David Eden) and Johnny (Liam Keenan). Yes, the Din boys return, and a lot has happened to them after their year of working in London. I don’t want to spoil the fun but one of them returns with a vivacious wife named Dot (a perky Sofie Jarvis).


Final Comments: ‘Many Young Men of Twenty’ is that gentle reminder of the strengthened resiliency of people in any given life changing moment. What is unique about this production is the use of music and song which also conveys a heartfelt emotional impact.


A lovely story. It’s worth a trip to Ireland.


‘Many Young Men of Twenty’ continues to February 29 at The Alumnae Theatre, 70 Berkeley Street, Toronto. For tickets call the Box Office (416) 440-2888 or visit www.torontoirishplayers.com.


Follow me on Twitter and Instagram: @SzekeresJoe


(Photo courtesy of Diane Flanagan. L-R: Sofie Jarvis, Martin McGuane, William Laxamana)


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