Review: A Man Of No Importance. Sharnbrook Mill Theatre

A Man Of No Importance

Sharnbrook Mill Theatre

29th March 2023

It’s hard to believe there was ever a time where being openly gay was against the law, and the landscape of gay rights and acceptance in the UK has changed massively in the 56 years since legislation was rightly changed.  Although LGBT+ communities still face outward persecution- today and many still carry internal shame, it’s important to recognise the progress that has been made, and looking back to the past is a great way of remembering this.  Set in Dublin in 1964 (3 years before the start of the decriminalisation), “A Man Of No Importance” appears on the surface to tell the story of an amateur theatre director Alfie Byrne who wants to put on a production of ‘Salome’ against the wishes of the local church authorities, who view the play as “dirty”.  The outdated attitudes around him hit even closer to Alfie himself, who is struggling with his sexuality and his feelings towards his friend Robbie, while trying to stop his oblivious sister Lily from finding him a wife.  Production troubles spiral as fast as Alfie’s inner turmoil as he tries to throw himself into his on-stage life in order to escape his own imprisonment, both metaphorical and literal.

“A Man Of No Importance” is a far cry from the flamboyance of ‘Priscilla Queen Of The Desert’ or the self-assuredness of ‘Rent’s bohemian dreamers.  This isn’t a world where RuPaul’s drag queens strut fearlessly under a global spotlight of adoration; instead this is a world where gay men are shunned outcasts who hide in the shadows, fearing abandonment and treading uncertain paths in the hope that they might not be the only ones.  Alfie is a gay character at the very start of his journey, with no real idea who he really is, and this gives the show a unique charm and realism all of its own.  The show is poignant reminder of the struggles of those who came before us, and of how much we have to be thankful for. 

Written by Stephen Flaherty (music) and Lynn Ahrens (lyrics), the score is largely folk-based which is very pleasing to the ear, full of Irish charm, and played wonderfully by a live band, led by MD Kaye Tompkins.  The songs are strongly character-led, perhaps not instantly memorable, but give plenty of lovely moments within the show, while feeling cohesive as a whole.  Terence McNally’s book does a good job of trying to balance the emotional weight of Alfie’s journey with spirited Irish humour, however it does feel a little uneven.  Although no fault of the Sharnbrook Mill cast (directed by David Russell), the musical’s structure suffers from an overlong first act and a pace that can feel lethargic at times.  The second act is far stronger, containing not only the better melodies but also the true heart of the show, eschewing the occasionally clunky humour early on in favour of real human connection.   Staging is modest, often with little more than chairs and tables on stage, but this never really matters in the intimate Sharnbrook Mill space, and allows the show’s characters to be the main focus.

Graham Breeze gives a fantastic central performance as Alfie, carrying his heart on his sleeve throughout and really getting the audience on his side and able to share in his struggle, culminating in the quiet triumph of “Welcome To The World” which is brilliantly delivered by Breeze.  He’s matched by Annette Codrington as his sister Lily, who shows great timing and really sells the journey from hurt to unconditional love in her “Tell Me Why” solo.  The rest of the cast all give enjoyable performances and each have their little moments to shine, particularly Mark Woodham’s Baldy and his heartbreaking solo “The Cuddles Mary Gave”.

A story of acceptance during a time when none was possible, “A Man Of No Importance” isn’t the flashiest or most dazzling of musicals, but its character shines through.  A few pacing problems and uneven tone aside, Sharnbrook Mill have chosen a little-known title and delivered on it well.  Another success for the Mill, already looking forward to the next one.

‘A Man Of No Importance’ runs at the Sharnbrook Mill Theatre until Saturday 1st April 2023.

Performance runtime 2 hours 35 minutes including interval

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