Catalpa – Review


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.

A Conversation With Karen Fricker

Karen Fricker, theatre academic and critic talks about her career, her views on current events and the future of theatre.

Karen Fricker web headshot copy

Tell us a little about what you do.
I am an assistant professor of Dramatic Arts at Brock University in Ontario, Canada. The focus of my research is on the ways in which globalization is affecting contemporary theatre and performance. Before I became an academic I worked as a theatre critic and arts magazine editor, and maintain a keen interest in theatre criticism and how it’s changing in the digital age.


How did you find your way into your field? Was it something you always had an interest in?
My mom sent me and my sister to a summertime drama programme at our local university when I was 12 and I have been hooked ever since.I studied English and Drama at university and didn’t find my way to criticism until after graduation, as I slowly realized that what I most loved about theatre – going to seeing shows and thinking and talking about then afterwards – could be something you do for a living.


What are your thoughts on the role of the critic in today’s society? How do you see it changing?
The received wisdom about criticism today is that thanks to the internet, everyone’s a critic. In fact everyone has always been a critic, inasmuch as the capacity to respond to the arts thoughtfully is part of what makes us human. But the rise of digital technologies means that pretty much anyone with a computer and internet access can broadcast their viewpoints. At the same time, and for related reasons, the number of paying jobs for professional critics is in decline, and some media outlets now privilege consumer/citizen reviews over expert ones. This is perceived by many with stakes in professional criticism as a situation of dire crisis. I prefer to see it as one of transition – expert voices will never be silenced. But just how they’re going to make themselves heard above the cacophony of online conversation is something that’s still playing itself out. It’s an exciting time.


What has your favourite theatre moment of the last 12 months been?
Ooh, I love that question. The most beautiful and moving performance I saw in 2014 was the contemporary circus piece Acrobates by the French company Le Montfort. I wrote about it extensively on my blog ( so I’ll not go on about it here — but I will say that contemporary circus is extremely vibrant at the moment and that maybe if Ireland gets really lucky, Willie White will program Acrobates in the Dublin Theatre Festival. That’s a hint, Willie.


What do you think of the current state of Irish theatre?
From 1997-2007 I lived in Dublin and was in the thick of things in the Irish performing arts, but now I only make it back twice a year so it’s hard for me to comment comprehensively. If I can say what work I most regret having missed in the years since I left it’s that of Anu Productions — their immersive Monto Cycle has been acknowledged as a major achievement. I am very sorry I never got a chance to see those productions.


If you had to pick one change to make to Irish theatre, what would it be?
Improved government funding.


You have worked a lot with young people, as an assistant professor in Brock University and on projects such as NAYD’s annual Young Critics programme. What are your thoughts on the future of theatre having worked with some of the practitioners, critics, academics and audiences of the present and future?
Working with young people is a great privilege, because through their eyes I see theatre as a space of limitless possibility and creativity. It’s impossible to get jaded! At the moment I am particularly interested to see what the next big thing after the post-dramatic (others may already know – please tell me!) and how digital criticism is going to continue to change my particular area of focus.


What advice would you give to a person considering pursing a similar career to yours?
Total, utter cliché but – follow your gut, follow your passion. If you feel like there’s something that needs to be said or done and you can’t figure out why no one is saying or doing it, that’s your cue. Do it yourself, say it yourself.


Thanks to Karen Fricker for sharing her thoughts.