Revival of The Unlucky Cabin Boy

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Stephen O'Leary as the fated Patrick O'Brien, to board the Francis Spaight Pic: Tom Lawlor
Stephen O’Leary as the fated Patrick O’Brien, to board the Francis Spaight
Pic: Tom Lawlor

A BIG hit with houses for its tenure at Lime Tree Theatre last year, ‘The Unlucky Cabin Boy’ returns for November, running from Wednesday 4 to Saturday 7. It’s a theatrical retelling set to music of a true Limerick story: that of one Patrick O’Brien who signs up to work on the freight ship Francis Spaight. While out on the high seas, a terrible storm breaks the ship and floods the crew’s water and vittals.

Ultimately, Patrick was the first of three on board whose body was eaten to sustain those who lived and… came home to face all families.

This 2015 production replicates the City of Culture funded model. It is produced by Gúna Nua Theatre, which is director Paul Meade’s company, and Verdant Productions. Playwright Mike Finn is happy to see this weighty musical unfurl its mast again and net a new audience.

“The Arts Council has been good to us,” this modest writer ‘fesses up. “We begin an extensive tour, heading for three venues in Dublin alone. I’ve not put something this big out since my time with Island Theatre Company”.

The ensemble plays off each other brilliantly while out on the oul’ briny in a rocking ship. We live with them in the well of despair, gnawing on shoe leather and morbidity.

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Playwright Mike Finn, Limerick born
Playwright Mike Finn, Limerick born

Finn crafted the words and dramatic layout; David Blake of The Brad Pitt Light Orchestra is 100 per cent responsible for music and lyrics. The five band members are on stage for the turbulent outpouring of tempest, floods and atrocity.

It is a magnificent storm to witness and how the sailors spring to it. Finn plundered the era for books such as Admiral WH Smyth’s ‘The Classic Source for Over 14,000 Nautical and Navy Terms’ to score authenticity.

Lots are drawn weeks after the devastation to see whose body has to be offered up.

Was it hard to stage the cannibalism? Mike Finn is practical. “The problem is you cannot go the blood and gore route – people might laugh, out of nervousness as much as what is going on. You see the moment, and it’s a musical moment on stage and we had as much outfront as we could”.

Yet theirs is a dignified reading of this stuff, saved from savagery by the fairness of a draw and everyone’s absolute terror at what is going on. Strong music and singing drive the action, the costumed band weaving within the wreckage and the drum-roll to death.

‘The Unlucky Cabin Boy’ unfolds in 8pm shows from November 4 to 8, at Lime Tree, South Circular Road.

Editor’s note on Mike Finn:

Actor, playwright and founder member of Island Theatre Company, Limerick, with whom he has appeared in over 20 plays.

His play ‘Pigtown’ was nominated for an Irish Times Theatre Award and was later staged at the Irish Repertory Theatre in New York. Finn has been International Writer in residence at the University of Iowa and the Burdines Distinguished Visiting Artist at the University of South Florida.