Writer: Aisling Foster
Director: Cherry Cookson
Reviewer: Karl O’Doherty
The story of the Russian crown jewels and the Irish underground government is one of the more interesting and fun ones to come out of the near impenetrable bleakness that generally surrounds the post 1916 years in Ireland. There are all the elements of a good political story with personality clashes, old ladies scorning governments, covert alliances and moral dubiousness abounding throughout.
In Luck Penny, Aisling Foster focuses on what happens after the main story has finished, when the jewels are being returned to Russia. Throughout the piece there are some enjoyable moments and good performances, but it’s certainly the story here rather than the execution that provides the majority of the play’s enjoyment.
Dr. Brendan Regan is in Russia with the jewels the Russian government gave Ireland as collateral for a loan back in about 1920. His job is to return the jewels, get the money back from the Kremlin and get a receipt for it to prove the transaction took place. While in Moscow he experiences communist bureaucracy, government surveillance and blackmail and some odd relationships with the receptionist and two women in his state-run hotel. With that sort of description it’s clear there is room here for the play to be farcical, but instead it’s a relatively serious piece with quite a few quick-witted moments of levity thrown in for good balance.
The first half sets out a lot of background to the story with a lot of talking and not much action. So much so, at times, that the play’s momentum is basically non-existent. Despite the efforts of the script and cast, real movement is not really initiated in the first half and renders it feeling a bit procedural. The second half fares better with interest being kept up by a genuine curiosity regarding what will happen with the jewels and the Russians. Though Foster may have taken poetic license with the historical accuracy of the story of the jewels, the one she presents here is absorbing and engaging.
There are no real stand-out performances from anybody in the cast though each have moments where they let their talent shine. Peter Dineen as Dr. Regan gives the highlight of the play in a monologue where he rails against Éamon de Valera and delivers some powerful lines on trust, friendship, politics and morality which also provide the play’s dramatic turn. Foster’s writing is a lot stronger in some parts than others, where something political is being discussed or in Dineen’s monologue above for example, but does the job asked of it and takes the audience through the story. Unfortunately though, for all the talking there are some snagging segues and rhythmical interruptions that disrupt the play’s flow.
Throughout the piece there is something a little unusual in the tone used, in the language and in the direction. Both Foster and director Cherry Cookson are experienced veterans of radio theatre, as are some of the cast (notably Mark Straker) and this experience comes through here. A result of this is that as a piece of live theatre it lacks a spark.However, this would be a pleasant enough play for Afternoon Drama on Radio 4.