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by Frank McGuinness
United Players
Jericho Arts Centre, 1675 Discovery
Jan. 23-Feb. 15
604-224-8007 or

United Players, the semi-professional company hidden away next to the youth hostel near Spanish Banks, may be the best-kept theatrical secret in town. It’s certainly one of the best theatrical deals.

Not only does the company deliver consistently watchable productions for the price of a movie ticket, but it frequently offers the city’s most intriguing season of plays. This year’s ranges from an obscure Restoration comedy by Thomas Otway to the fascinating revival of early 20th century Somerset Maugham to a Tom Stoppard Canadian premiere.

There Came a Gypsy Riding is another Canadian premiere, direct from London’s West End. Too bad this new play from Irish stalwart Frank McGuinness (Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me) is not very good, despite one particularly vivid character captured in a bravura performance by Joan Bryans.

In the kitchen of a country cottage in western Ireland, a family gathers to mark the 21st birthday of Gene, who killed himself two years earlier. His surviving brother and sister (Shane Twerdun and Erin Garcia) and parents (Sheila Langston and Murray Price) spend their long day’s journey into night bickering, eating, exchanging recriminations, and generally engaging in the stock conventions of this familiar theatrical scenario-- all except the drinking. McGuinness makes it a joke that this extended Irish wake is booze-free.

Almost nothing about the characters’ behaviour regarding Gene’s suicide seems real. It’s as though they held off dealing with it for two years so everything could come conveniently spilling out during the two hours of the play. Adding to the sense of contrivance is the suicide note, dramatically revealed by cousin Bridget (Bryans), who has kept it a secret.

The actors do good work with what they’re given. The men, playing relatively low-key characters, have an easier time than the more emotionally volatile women. Angry mother Margaret suffers a breakdown in act two that Langston performs with great commitment. And they all manage decent accents. But there’s little of the Irish poetry in their rhetorical, argumentative speech.

Bridget is the exception. Described in the publicity as “a mad fey creature,” she tiptoes along the edge of stereotype with her charming eccentricities and weird, lilting riffs. McGuinness gives her all the play’s best lines. The potato is a “vicious creature”; her face when she cries “looks like a rubber sheet at an orphanage.” She calls herself “a bride of Satan,” then provides her spouse’s extended bio. “Satan doesn’t believe in resurrections,” she concludes. “That’s the other boyo’s business.”

By the end director M. Alison Raine simply lines up the other actors on either side of Bryans and lets her do her delightful thing.

Jerry Wasserman