Review: “The Kings of the Kilbrun High Road” at the Liffey Players

Vicki Trask

  • Calgary Critic

I rushed to the Pumphouse Theatre on Saturday November 12 2016, excited to see the closing night performance from Calgary’s Irish theatre company: Liffey Players Drama Society. “Kings of the Kilburn High Road” did not disappoint my expectations of rowdy laughter, intense drama, and just the hint of an Irish accent. This two-act play written by Jimmy Murphy follows five men at the informal wake of their recently deceased friend as they discuss life, regrets, and try to piece together how they got to this point in their lives. The six men had come over to England from Ireland in the 1970s with dreams of striking it rich and simply never left. The repercussions were a real and honest look at the hard-luck lives of posturing men who spend more than they earn and carry domestic and international troubles with them everywhere they go.

This show relies very heavily on those five men carrying the emotional weight of six stories and I think the burden was a little unevenly distributed but that’s not a condemning factor when watching theatre. Ensemble pieces vary as a story demands but it meant I was less invested in some characters over others.

Starting with Jap Kavanagh, played by Sean Cassidy. The man entered the room with the right amount of loud and boisterous swagger that drew the audience in from the very start. As the story amped up, we saw cracks in his confidence and his vulnerability spilled out onto the floor. I love that. I love seeing the tough, closed off character reveal their soft spots in an organic and smooth way. I don’t think that’s exactly what I saw. He carried a lot of the focus in the show and so it made perfect sense that he would play the emotional caddy for the other characters and he would eventually release all of that tension in a very physical way. The problem, for me, came in the way Sean revealed all that passion. It felt forced and very rehearsed which is the exact opposite of what I was expecting. Up until that one crucial moment, I was completely enthralled; and then my investment in this character’s journey dropped. That one moment shouldn’t take away from the hundred other fantastic shots and one-liners leading up to it; I think Sean Cassidy gave an excellent performance.

The next to enter the scene was Jerry Callaghan, playing Maurteen Rogers, the seemingly sober minded, down-to-earth foil to Jap’s eccentric, loud-mouthed personality. Of course, we know that he also has a secret and its reveal is one of many arguments that end in a near fist fight throughout the show. The dark energy behind all of his motivations created such a cloud of shame around his character, I enjoyed watching him navigate between his friends knowing some of them had seen the colder side of his expectedly warm personality. Generally, Jerry Callaghan gave a highly enjoyable performance. 

The same cannot be said of his scene partner Jon Warkentin who played Shay Mulligan, who played the most neutral of all the men. Shay carries the least amount of tension in his contribution to the plot and that’s not the problem. I just wasn’t feeling it from this actor.

There’s was a lot of swearing and lot of stuttered intervening during particularly high moments and yet I didn’t feel the same energy coming off him as I did the others. All the cursing felt recited rather than an expletive that begs to be uttered as you’re standing between your friend and a black eye. Jon’s performance just didn’t reach the intensity that I needed from him.

Git Miller was another character I expected to remain in the background, stopping arguments and staring out the window for two hours. I was sorely mistaken and I think Greg Spielman gave an incredibly honest performance without being overdramatic or condescending towards the audience. This character has the big reveal – the one that shakes the others to their core – but it wasn’t presented that way. It just happened. Greg began talking and we were all suddenly on the edge of our seat, enthralled in his chilling tale. Git is a fantastic character; he was very subdued – even when falling down drunk – and simultaneously played every personality the others needed him to be: loud and abrasive, calming and reasonable, honest and kind, drunk and disorderly. I loved seeing every version as the night went on.

And then there’s Joe. Jason Long plays Joe Mullen, the only man in their group to ever “make it” in any sense of the word. He became fat and successful – everything they always said they would be – but then he left the others behind and became practically a stranger. This is a man, happy to spread the wealth around when it buys him the popular vote, and we see that from the moment he steps into the room. He makes his grand entrance and from then on, his crown slowly slips off his head as more secrets come out. Jason is another one who had a great emotional moment and I just didn’t believe him. The rest of his performance was fine; he played the jolly rich lord greeting his peasant friends with the right amount of arrogance and insecurity. Overall, a great performance.

I was absolutely drawn in by the plot regardless of who was presenting it but I was glad to see it performed with such great talent and a fantastic director at the helm. Jerod Blake assembled the perfect group of men for this story, and beyond that I thought he did a fantastic job of pulling the life out of these characters. The blocking made sense, the pacing ebbed and flowed in a way I would expect, I have no complaints. 

It helped to have a great production team to bring everything to life. Sound by Dean Caplan was so subtly perfect. In a space like the Pumphouse, you generally don’t need microphones so any sound or music that does come from the speakers needs to be perfectly balanced. I loved the background chatter, the noise from the pub, helped to create the right atmosphere throughout the show. Again, Bill Torrie’s lighting was well matched to the sound, complimenting the scene and the movement without overshadowing (forgive the lighting pun) the story being told on stage.

When I first walked into the theatre before the show started, my first impression was that the set (by Jerod Blake) was over the top. Everything was green, and Irish, and big. But I can’t speak to what the side room of an Irish pub in London would look like so what I can talk about is its function and presence in the drama that was presented. I thought everything was laid out in the right spot and set the right mood for the drunkenly proud Irishmen saying goodbye to their dear friend. The atmosphere was consistent and bright which offered a great contrast to the actor’s sullen words.

We sort of drift away from the initial premise of the show but we never really forget why these characters have gathered. They shout, and curse, and drink, and tell stories but ultimately, these are five grieving men who are trying to find a way to express their emotions. I believe everyone involved accomplished that goal. 

I enjoyed my night out with Liffey Players and “The Kings of the Kilbrun High Road”; I am looking forward to another performance from them in February.