Dunamaise Arts Centre
Having walked past an old poster for Catalpa, on which the Washington Post described it as “a soaring theatrical Catalpa…a rip-roaring one man adventure, ”every day for as long as I can remember, I was really looking forward to finally seeing the show, and I was not disappointed.
Catalpa, written and performed by Donal O’Kelly, tells the story of the 1876 rescue of six Irish prisoners from the Freemantle colony in Australia on a whaling ship captained by Capt. George Anthony. Simply set with a long white sheet suspended in the centre of the stage, draped over a box being the only set pieces (excepting Knight’s keyboard and equipment), the emphasis is on the storytelling throughout the piece. This was a good move as O’Kelly demonstrates a true talent for telling a rollicking good tale. Switching between characters adeptly, creating clear images of every person in the audience’s minds, O’Kelly draws us into the tale; I found myself leaning forward in my seat, flinching, laughing, holding my breath, frowning, grinning and smiling with each twist and turn in the story. The sheet is used to great effect to compliment this, becoming waves, an old mother-in-law’s shawl, a wife’s scarlet dress, and bedclothes, amongst other things.
O’Kelly’s performance is accompanied live by Trevor Knight who ekes brilliance out of the keyboard, bringing the sea, whales and many other parts of the story to life through sounds and music. The lighting design, adapted for this tour by Ray Duffy, is simple yet stunning. It captured every mood in the piece, transformed O’Kelly’s appearance from character to character and further brings to life the captivating tale.
Having been on the go since it premiered 20 years ago, Catalpa has probably clocked up more miles than the original ship, touring numerous Irish venues, travelling to the 1996 Edinburgh Fringe Festival (where it earned itself a first), and to myriad other international engagements from the Chicago Humanities Festival to the Harare Festival of the Arts Zimbabwe. It has deserved the run it has had and the status it has earned as a classic of contemporary Irish theatre; this show is an example of one of my favourite types of theatre. An engaging, exciting, funny and moving piece, Catalpa is intimate, enthusiastic, uncomplicated storytelling at its finest.