Thursday, 1 March 2007

Harp on the Willow by John Misto, March 1, 2007

Harp on the Willow by John Misto
Comedy Theatre, March 1 to 25, 2007
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on March 1, 2007

An interesting biography does not always translate into a good play. 

In Harp on the Willow, John Misto overcomes the problem by using only two short watershed periods in the life of Irish folk singer, Mary O’Hara (Marina Prior and Lucy Maunder).

The first, in the 1950s, comprises Mary’s few early years of fame as a singer on record, radio and television during which she married American poet, Richard Selig (Tom Wren), who died tragically of cancer when Mary was only 21. The second is from 1972 to ‘73 at the end of Mary’s 12 years in the contemplative Benedictine order as Sister Miriam.

The entire story makes sense when the real Mary O’Hara steps on stage after the curtain call: tall, elegant and restrained. Her composure, and film of a young Mary singing with her Celtic harp explain her enduring charm.

Although not a musical, the play, directed by Andrew Doyle, includes original recordings of Mary and provides numerous opportunities for live song. Prior captures all of the humorous, acerbic and nostalgic aspects of Sister Miriam and sings a pretty version of Danny Boy, the haunting Flower Duet from Lakme, a playful Gaelic ditty called Haigh Didil Dum (OK) and the rousing Lord of the Dance.

As the young Mary, Maunder is feisty and sensual and prettily sings Blow The Wind Southerly.  Several choral numbers, including Pie Jesu and The Hallelujah Chorus, beautifully combine the voices of Prior, Maunder and Julie Hudspeth.

Hudspeth (replacing Joan Carden) is often hilarious as the indomitable Mother Raphael who compels Mary to play her harp again. Christopher Stollery is exceptional as Tyrone Kane, the grieving, alcoholic American who, while seeking Mary’s help on his road to recovery, unwittingly inspires her to take back her life. Wren makes the premature death of the youthful, energetic Selig compelling.

We assume that Misto takes some licence with Mary’s story and certainly with the language used in the convent. There are blasphemies, jokes at the expense of Saint Wallburga who cut off her nose to spite the Vikings, jokes about chicken manure, the Irish and potatoes, the Archbishop and The Catholic Weekly. Misto gets plenty of comic mileage out of the nuns’ ignorance of popular culture and politics.

The set (Mark Thompson) is cramped and busy, the style of the play outmoded and the story a little predictable but the production is entertaining and often enchantingly old-fashioned.

By Kate Herbert

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