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Improbable Frequency at the Gaiety Theatre

Produced by Rough Magic, Arthur Riordan returns his celebrated musical to the Irish stage. An artistic collaboration between the writer and musicians Bell Helicopter, Improbable Frequency is a delightful little farce set during “the Emergency.” The wonderfully madcap little espionage music metaphysical meditation premiered over half-a-decade ago, and has toured the world. I think it certainly deserves to be measured as one of our most distinctly and cleverly Irish of theatrical exports. It’s insane, it’s over-the-top, it’s hard-to-pin-down and it’s also more than a little bit brilliant.

Schrodinger's a cool cat...

Improbable Frequency has the distinction of drawing on a wide variety of factual sources, even if it’s hardly the most historical of presentations. As Riordan has noted in interviews, his inspirations were all delightfully off-beat. Inspired by the fact that British Intelligence used use crosswords to test code-breakers, and the clever use of poetry to encode confidential information, the musical sees British Intelligence dispatch Tristram Faraday to the Irish Free State to investigate the possibility of a secret Nazi spy ring using an old-fashioned Irish radio show to leak weather conditions to the German High Command. And it gets decidedly stranger from there.

Riordan’s version of Dublin is populated with all manner of interesting factual details. The Red Bank restaurant and bar appears in the show, based on the real-life D’Olier Street locale that was a frequent meeting place for Irish Nazi sympathisers. Erwin Schrödinger is a character here, bringing his surreally liberal sexuality to a still repressed Ireland, and providing a handy dose of surreal atomic science. That great Irish meta-fictional author Flann O’Brien even appears in the play, though that probably shouldn’t be a surprise. Riordan had earlier adapted O’Brien’s unfinished Slattery’s Sago Sagafor the stage, so he has a long history with the writer.

He's a poet, dontcha know it?

However, all these are just interesting footnotes, as Riordan’s play unfolds in a slightly off-kilter alternate Dublin, with wacky science-fiction conceptions and bizarre musical numbers that could have been lifted straight from Cabaret. There’s something delightfully insane about Riordan’s keen script, where even the dialogue has a lyrical quality. (Hell, he makes sure that most of his spoken lines rhyme.) There’s a sense that absolutely anything could happen and that somehow every strange little factoid or point of interest is somehow tied together despite, as the title alludes, the improbability of it all.

Riordan provides what might be the most delightfully wacky piece of Irish science-fiction I have ever seen, dealing cleverly with matters of meta-fiction and metaphysics. It seems oddly appropriate that Flann O’Brien gets caught up in this, compelled as he is to play through ridiculous scenarios to set up gleeful puns. Riordan’s love of language is evident in the play, as he gleeful throws out puns and non-sequitors, as his character wittily rap and sing along, commenting on all things great and small. Some of it is shrewdly pointed, some of it remarkably light, but all of it clever and funny.

Just a crazy bunch of guys and dolls...

After all, it’s very rare to see an Irish sing-along featuring shamrocks morphed into strange-looking swastikas, or the British embassy offering some rather practical advice on dealing with the Irish national character. Riordan’s writing is clever, but never inaccessible. It’s well-observed and well-researched, but also easy to follow and understand. Though the writer might play with some relatively heavy ideas, he never allows the musical to get too weighed down at a given moment.

The latest production is quite fantastic, brought to life by Rough Magic, who commissioned the original play. I’m quite glad to see it performed around St. Patrick’s Day. The cast do the play a tremendous amount of justice, without a single bum not among the players. However, Rory Nolan deserves to be singled out for his gleeful portrayal of both the Irish radio announcer who sparks this investigation and the British poet John Betjeman. It’s a wonderful portrayal, even though the whole ensemble is near perfect. The production design in the Gaiety is absolutely fabulous (especially when Schrödinger’s secret project is revealed), and the cast are accompanied by a superb orchestra.

Danger is in the Eire...

Improbable Frequency is a modern Irish classic, a highly enjoyable high energy music that manages to be smart without ever becoming too complex. It’s wry and it’s clever, but it’s also brilliantly funny, and is well worth a look for anybody with an interesting in Irish or musical (or, in fact, Irish musical) theatre.

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