Counterparts & A Little Cloud – Bewley’s Café Theatre, Dublin

Reviewer: Louise Tallon

Writer: James Joyce

Directors: Jim Roche and Liam Hourican

James Joyce was enjoying a cultural life in Italy when his sister mentioned that back home in Ireland people didn’t even have a cinema. Excited by the prospect of a lucrative business venture and with the financial backing of two Triestine investors, Joyce’s Cinematograph Volta opened its doors at 45, Mary Street, Dublin on December 20th, 1909.

It can be no coincidence then, that actors Jim Roche and Liam Hourican along with musicians Conor Sheil and Feilimidh Nunan breathe life into two of Joyce’s short stories from The Dubliners today as Volta Theatre Company.

Counterparts and A Little Cloud are a natural coupling. In each we witness a middle-aged man dissatisfied with the dreary mundanity of an unfulfilling career and burdened by the weight of familial responsibility.

After a welcoming overture by Sheils and Nunan on keyboard and clarinet, Hourican takes to the stage as Thomas Chandler. Thoughts of his imminent reunion with an old friend is making it hard for ‘Little’ Chandler to concentrate on work. Sitting at his desk, the timid King’s Inn administrator ruminates on the glorious success of Ignatius Gallaher as a journalist in London while he, an aspiring poet, is stuck in a boring job in Dublin. His visit with a gregarious, if vulgar, Gallaher over whisky and cigars in Corless’s bar later only serves to cement his envy and ire. While he is a prisoner to marriage (“one woman…must get a bit stale”) and fatherhood, the writer dallies with a myriad array of exotic European women and will only marry for money.

Beautiful music facilitates the harmonious transition from A Little Cloud to Counterparts as Chandler exits in the dimming light and legal clerk Farringdon (Roche) enters. Where Joyce’s earlier protagonist was shy and melancholic, this character, while funny, is predominantly irritable and aggressive. After having been tasked to copy a lengthy document by his boss, Mr Alleyne, Farringdon sneaks to the pub for a swift one in order to “slake the thirst in his throat”. Lacking focus on his return and with a longing to drink, he fails to complete the assignment. This leads to a public dressing down by Alleyne. Farringdons impertinent retort provides fodder for regaling friends in a series of establishments that evening, all funded by the sale of his watch to a pawnbroker in Temple Bar. Alcohol does not sate his mood, however. His dwindling funds, a woman ignoring his flirtatious advances and the loss of an arm wrestling match to Weathers, “a mere boy”, further infuriates Farringdon. Ultimately, it will be his son who bears the brunt of his rage. The child had allowed the fire to burn out at home.

Accomplished actors both – Hourican and Roche do great justice to Joyce’s depiction of two disaffected men hindered by the various constraints imposed upon them in early 20th century Dublin. Alternating between voices, behaviours and mannerisms, each transforms ably from one character to the next in their individual set pieces. Given Hourican’s excellent French accent and decorous portrayal of Chandler, I wonder if Counterparts might have been even better as a two-hander with him in the role of northern Irish law firm partner Alleyne. Likewise, Roche who is utterly convincing as spiralling alcoholic Farringdon would have made an excellent Ignatius Gallaher in A Little Cloud.

The players are supported by lighting and sound designed by Colm Maher and executed by Ben Waddell. Set design and costume are historically and succinctly on-point. What elevates this production above others has to be the live music throughout from Nunan on keyboard, violin and song and Sheil on clarinet. Their instrumental rendition of Spancil Hill is a delight.

One of the highlights from today’s show is when Chandler, already late for tea, realises he has “forgotten to bring Annie home the parcel of coffee from Bewley’s”. While, inevitably, a large proportion of men (and women) still struggle against the pressures and responsibilities of work and having to provide for their families 100 years on, there is a comfort in continuity and so we smile and appreciate the history and privilege of being in the café theatre of this beautiful and iconic building today.

Runs Until July 20th 2024.

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The Ireland team is currently under the editorship of Laura Marriott. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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