THE BELL RINGER
The Schoolyard Theatre, Charleville
It is hard to imagine that a play about something so tragic as the 1926 Dromcollogher cinema fire can contain a richness of joy and laughter alongside the horror of the original story. But The Bell Ringer, written and directed by Charlie McCarthy, manages to do all of this and more. The fire took place at an unofficial film screening that went horribly wrong when the highly flammable reels ignited and people were quickly trapped in an upstairs timber loft. Forty-eight locals of all ages, including young children, died, leaving behind a grief that seeped silently down the generations.
McCarthy’s own grandaunt Ellen Madden was among the dead, so on one level The Bell Ringer is a deeply personal story, but it is not a documentary drama and it is not a history play. It is a glorious, lyrical elegy to the ordinary people who once lived in the rural villages and towns of Ireland, their loves, their hopes, their dreams and their losses. Something of a play within a play, The Bell Ringer has two time frames: the present, in which two actors are working on their performance; and the past, which is the real play itself. This device seems somewhat unnecessary and a little cumbersome and is the only note that jars in this otherwise pitch-perfect production.
McCarthy is deeply respectful of the ghosts hovering behind this story and knows that for them to find peace they must be seen, and here they are mostly gloriously illuminated
Set in the fictional village of Balnafenagh, it is, inevitably, reminiscent of Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood in terms of its human chorus, in that the entire town is brought vividly and richly to life through extraordinary, tour-de-force performances from Susannah de Wrixon and Patrick Ryan as, in turn, everyone from the parish priest to a crow in the rafters.
McCarthy is deeply respectful of the ghosts hovering behind this story and knows that for them to find peace they must be seen, and here they are mostly gloriously illuminated. De Wrixon and Ryan are superb. Ryan as the lost, lonely narrator and bell ringer of the title, de Wrixon morphing at speed from person to person with just a tiny shift in gesture or a barely perceptible alteration in tone, effortlessly making us believe that the stage is peopled with characters to the point of overcrowding; we quickly come to know each of them and believe their stories.
The heartbreak is that we are aware from the outset that they are almost all doomed, but there is no cheap tugging at the heartstrings in The Bell Ringer. In the end you break a little inside because to do otherwise is impossible.
Runs at the Schoolyard Theatre, Charleville, Co Cork, until Sunday, February 26th