Alone it Stands


Theatre Review by Peter Hepple
Duchess Theatre

Cast exhibits fine teamwork

This Irish import, written and directed by John Breen, will inevitably be compared with John Godber’s Up and Under. But although it has a similar subject -though this one is about rugby union not rugby league – there are important differences. Breen goes for a more physical approach than Godber, a collage of episodes and impressions suggested by the victory of Munster province over the touring All Blacks in 1978.

The cast of six – five men and one woman – play both teams, their coaches, supporters and, in Niamh McGrath’s case, the wife giving birth to twins while her husband is on the rugby field. The actors switch roles with great speed. One minute they are conveying the fanaticism of the New Zealanders, psyching themselves up with a Maori haka, the next brilliantly suggesting the more laid back approach of the home team which has some internal problems of its own – largely composed as it is of Limerick men who play for rival teams. The sharp observations of those who make up the fans and families are in many ways the most amusing and significant parts of the play.

The acting, by Malcolm Adams, Dessie Gallagher,Garrett Lombard, Gerry McCann and Paul Meade, in addition to McGrath, is beyond reproach in all respects. Adams shines particularly as grizzled old man and fiercely committed coach while Gallagher and Meade display forbidding physical presence. Jack Kirwan contributes an effective cyclorama setting which shows the Limerick skyline and James McFetridge’s lighting cues into the non-stop action skilfully.


The Sunday Telegraph
Theatre Review by John Goss
January 6, 2002


In recent times, every year in the London theatre has had a strong Irish component, and the current year opened last week with two contrasting faces of Ireland – one wearing an amiable smile, the other a death’s head grin. At the Duchess Theatre, John Breen’s Alone It Stands reconstructs a piece of sporting history: the rugby match at Limerick in 1978 in which the amateurs of the Munster team astonished the world and themselves by beating the All Blacks. Over at the Pit, in the Barbican, Martin McDonagh’s The Lieutenant of Inishmore, which was first seen last year in Stratford, tells a tale of Irish paramilitary politics at their goriest.

In Alone It Stands the cast of six (five men, one woman) have their work cut out. Not only do they have to mime the members of both teams and their exploits on the pitch, they also have to play a wide variety of fans and lots of other bit parts. The skill with which they pencil in their roles is equalled only by the speed with which they switch from one role to another; and there’s a cumulative effect too. The impersonation of a flouncing schoolgirl is all the more amusing when we have seen the same actor not long before being equally convincing as a snobbish spectator, a wheezing old codger and a ferocious All Black manager who fines a member of his team during a pep-talk for “audible sighing”.

Venues make a difference, and I must admit that I enjoyed the show somewhat more when I saw it in Edinburgh a couple of years ago, in a more intimate setting, and in the round. But it is still delightful. There is some rich humour, especially in the contrast between the Irish players’ pessimism and the New Zealanders’ will to win; the mood is affirmative without being hearty; and over and above the individual vignettes you get the sense of a whole community being brought to life.


Financial Times
Theatre Review
Tuesday January 8 2002

Edinburgh try converted to a London goal

When I first saw John Breen’s Alone It Stands, at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh in August, 2000, its most obvious reference was John Godber’s Up’n’Under. Now it has opened for a brief season in the West End’s Duchess Theatre, it is more appropriately to be compared to a production running half a mile away: Marie Jones’ Stones in his Pockets. Breen’s account of the amateur Munster rugby team’s historic victory over the All Blacks in Limerick on Hallowe’en 1978 shares a couple of designers with Stones, but also a style and spirit, at once lampooning and sincerely celebrating a particular conception of Irishness. Each features a tightly drilled company turning on a sixpence between multiple roles. Here, the game itself is spliced with the stories of various knots of fans and a gang of kids determined to build Limerick’s biggest ever Hallowe’en bonfire.

The staging of the match is fairly Godberesque, with its stylised freezes, slow motion and constant narration from the characters; frankly, though, there aren’t that many different ways you can show rugby on a stage with a cast of half-a-dozen. There is little chance for any of the actors to draw breath, and no-one ever leaves the stage through the show (at two hours, slightly longer than the match itself), instead sitting on benches literally on the sidelines of the playing area.

Malcolm Adams has a nice line in portraying a series of hapless, often slightly wimpish characters; Gerry McCann delights as a fan on the terraces while his wife is giving birth to twins – “No child of mine”, he declares earlier, “would have the bad manners to be born during a match”. But the palm goes to Dessie Gallagher, whose main roles are pessimistic fan Lanky (“Scorin’ against them….it’ll only annoy them”) and Munster captain Donal Canniffe, whose very moment of triumph was dashed by the news that his father had suffered a fatal heart attack while listening to the (untelevised) match on the radio.

The subject-matter may seem on the parochial, but the human interest and David-and-Goliath aspects ensure a more than agreeable time. Breen’s writing and direction are ebullient enough to have carried the piece through two and a half years of life, much of it in performance in various rugby clubs across Ireland.

– Ian Shuttleworth

The Sunday Tribune
Arts Extra
In a field of its own

Andrew’s Lane Theatre OCTOBER 1978: The day that Munster beat the All-Blacks has become one of those ‘where were you when’ moments, a signal point when a rag-tag team of amateur rugby players improbably shut out (arguably) the best team in the world. And because the match wasn’t televised (nice one, RTE) we’ve had to rely on memory and storytelling to keep it alive; now there are many people who believe they were actually at Thomond Park that day, so vivid and personal have the memories become. In short, and in the perceptive words of John Breen, the writer/director of the wonderful new play about the match, Alone It Stands, the Munster victory over the All-Blacks is “the last great folk memory” and as such is perfect fodder for dramatisation.

The play weaves together stories of different people involved in or affected by the match, some real-life, others fictionalised: players from both teams and their coaches, assorted supporters, and a gang of Limerick kids who take advantage of the lull during match-time to assemble a mega-bonfire (remember it all happened on Hallowe’en). Alone It Stands, co-produced by Yew Tree Theatre in Ballina and Island Theatre Company in Limerick, originated as a touring production to traditional theatre venues and rugby clubs (great idea!) and its look is appropriately rough-and-ready; there’s no set, just a white square on a black floor and two benches where the six members of the cast sit when they’re not ‘in play’.

The poor theater aesthetic extends into the way the play is written and staged: the actors play multiple roles including animals, bits of furniture, and in one inspired moment, the rugby ball itself. The play starts with an appropriately fierce re-enactment of the All-Blacks ‘stomping ritual’: the cast pound the floor with their feet, tongues out, panting and growling and – from all appearances- having a total ball.

The phrase ‘ensemble acting’ is tossed around way too often these days to describe any group that appears on a stage together; this cast scrum, tackle, cheer, pick each other up and throw each other around, switching ably between different characters, scenes and energy levels, creating a unified team energy that is an essential part of the production’s meaning and its effectiveness. All get many moments to shine: Malcolm Adams embodies the play’s conscience as the thoughtful Munster center Tony Ward; Conor Delaney plays both a uniquely bizarre Limerick cab driver and a hyperactive spaniel; Gerry McCann shows off an amazing facility with accents and voices in a variety of roles; Ciaran McMahon is genuinely touching as player Donal Canniffe whose father passed away during the match; Karl Quinn displays equal facility playing a new-born, a 12 year old wheeler-dealer, and a Limerick codger; and tiny Niamh McGrath gives birth on stage and throws herself into the tackle with equal fearlessness.

Breen’s writing is fast and funny, and he gets the serious thoughts in with the minimum sentimentality. This is big-hearted popular theater at its best, and a production that has serious touring potential. Wonder how it’d go down in New Zealand.


– Karen Fricke

The Times
Review by Max Velody

Wednesday Sport
January 9, 2002

Rugby drama stands alone in its portrayal of sport

New West End play brings together two worlds to provide entertainment for everyone

It was the woman in the beautiful, full-length, fur coat who set the scene for rugby union’s theatrical foray. Gliding into the Duchess Theatre in London’s West End last week, with all the majesty and sophistication of a Hollywood star, she stopped, suddenly, as she passed through the theatre’s main doors. “What did you say?” she barked at two men, hovering by the entrance. They lowered their gaze and pulled at their Irish rugby shirts, tightly wrapped over their paunches. Her voice was loud, threatening and raucous. The accent was unmistakeably Irish. The men looked from one to the other, each hoping the other was able to summon up a suitable reply. A silence had descended upon the foyer. “Did you fecking say that I knew nothing about rugby? Did you?” the woman said, pointing at her accusers and gnashing her teeth. “We thought it rather unlikely,” came a hesitant reply. “There ain’t no one in Ireland knows more about rugby than me. I’ve played since I could walk and I’v e seen this play eight fecking times. Know more about rugby than you’ve forgotten and I’m a fecking theatre director and I used to act for the Royal Shakespeare Company, so feck off.”

With that, she spun round and departed for her seat, her coat swishing out and almost knee-capping her accusers, in one final, dramatic gesture. Before this verbal attack, the two men had been discussing how the opening night of John Breen’s rugby play, Alone It Stands, might attract a peculiar mix of sportsmen and thespians – those with an understanding of rugby and those with an understanding of theatre. They spoke as if the two worlds had nothing in common, the meeting of two diverse cultures, the thinkers and the drinkers, perhaps.

In reality, of course, as the woman in fur so elegantly illustrated, one can be both. Sport has a heavily threatical component to it that makes it so utterly absorbing, so mind-blowingly frustrating and so thrillingly uplifting. It is the drama and high stakes that define sport, distinguishing it from play. Sport has its villains and heroes; frail individuals with complex relationships; brave leaders and, above all, geniuses such as Paul Gascoigne, Jennifer Capriati and the king of the breed, George Best, who have flaws that feed off their gift, growing as the genius increases until the sporting star blows apart at the top of his or her career. Their psychological proclivities are the stuff of drama. Unfortunately, Breen’s play does not tackle some of the deeply psychological or sociological issues of sport. Instead of attempting to worm its way beneath the skin of sport and expose the nature of greatness, weakness or determination in man, it places sport in its cultural context and takes a light-hearted look at the great triumph of Munster over the All Blacks in 1978.

The play interweaves the lives of the palyers with the watching spectators, a birth, a death and the activities of a group of teenagers too absorbed in building a bonfire to pay attention to the match. The play invites theatregoers to accept that six actors wearing rugby shirts represent everything from a pregnant woman’s womb to a scrum, a car and television characters. And it does it fantastically well. The choreography is exceptional, with players seemlessly moving from inanimate objects to characters and back again. The use of the body as a dramatic tool is achieved in a way reminiscent of modern dance, but the extreme nature of the roles being played and the swift transition between characters lends a comic element, achieved with a deftness of touch.

The play is entertaining, well executed and has some absorbing moments. One of the highlights was Niamh McGrath, the only actress in the production, turning into the ball and flying above the Limerick skyline to a commentary that touched on the poetic. Alone It Stands is well worth seeing. It is like a feel-good movie with scrums – a pleasant diversion and a thoroughly enjoyable way to spend an evening.

Copyright 2002 Times Newspapers Limited


The Examiner
Theater review by Declan Hassett
Tuesday, April 4, 2000

More than a game, this is pure joy

ALONE IT STANDS is as good as the whole country has been saying for months and is enjoying its second tour at the Half Moon Studio Theatre, Opera House, Cork, all this week and next. Written and directed by John Breen, brilliantly lit by Gerry Meagher and played by a cast of six with the fervour of the Munster pack who shocked the mighty All-Blacks on that magical afternoon in Thomond Park, Limerick, in 1978.

The record books reveal a 12-0 victory for the home side but John Breen’s play is not so much about the statistic but about the flesh and blood, the very soul which fashion such a win against seemingly insurmountable odds. Breen has captured the intensity of that afternoon but above all he encapsulated, all of 22 years later, just what the winning of one match meant to so many. And this is not so much about a match but more about life itself, any life, when only one result is predicted and the odds are stacked.

Alone It Stands is a joy on several counts. The writer laces the story with marvellous humour and humanity. He manages to thread, through all the grunt and groan, a seam of real-life tragedy with great delicacy and sensitivity. The cast are a dream team and their artistic triumph on stage matches anything achieved on the field of play. So catch if you can Malcolm Adams, Conor Delaney, Gerry McCann, Niamh McGrath, Ciaran McMahon, Karl Quinn.

The Studio Theater at the Opera House was distinctly chilly last night, so it could have been the Thomond Park stand on October 31, 1978. This is a play for anyone who has ever dreamed and seen a dream come true.


Review by Paul Taylor
Jan 4, 2002

Scrum like it hot

The rules and culture of Rugby Union are about as familiar a subject to this reviewer as the formation of irregular verbs in the African clicking languages. As far as participation goes, the one time I actually caught the

ball during a school game, I was so surprised that I ran with it in the wrong direction. And everyone else was so surprised that they let me. I shall never forget the look on my father’s face when he bought me my first boots and discovered me trying to get en pointes in them. I have, moreover, a deep antipathy to drama that overplays the plucky underdog card, and the poster for this show (an outrageously appealing labrador supplicates us with a rugby ball in its mouth) suggests that it will be the ultimate incarnation of that mode. So it says a lot for the huge charm of John Breen’s comedy, Alone It Stands – about the extraordinary day in 1978 when Munster defeated the All Blacks in Limerick – that, rather like the Irish side, it foxed and outmanoeuvred my prejudices and came in with a score of 12-0 against me.

Directed by the author, the show is a bit like a cross between the muscly comic mime of John Godber’s Up ‘n’ Under and the wily, protean Irish fun of the current hit Stones in his Pockets – except that here , it’s a cast of six that plays the multiple roles, and the cultural invasion of the Emerald Isle is by a team of gigantic New Zealanders rather than a Hollywood film crew. Everyone – from the rival teams to the gobsmacked supporters, from a trio of rickety oldsters watching the match in a Cork pub to the Limerick women who think of rugby as more of a mating ritual than a sport – are conjured into being by five actors and an actress who, in the interest of fairness, wear an All Black rugby strip in the first half, then change into red and white for the eventual triumph.

“Do you know what they see when they look at you?” the New Zealand manager barks at his squad. “The most desirable virgin in all of rugby – pure, unsullied by defeat. Do you know what happens to virgins who piss about? They get fucked!” Part of the humour of the piece comes from the fact that the same performers have to shift in the twinkling, between two very different physical types: strapping Goliaths and life-sized Davids. For a conventional drama, it would have been better if the Munster team had snatched last-minute victory from the jaws of defeat. But Breen gets some excellent comic mileage from the way the Irish team’s unbroken lead challenges the innate pessimism of their supporters, embodied here by Dessie Gallagher’s hilariously wary Lanky. “Scoring against them – it will only make them angry,” he tuts, constantly expecting a blood-boltered backlash. Used to history lessons, where the English always have the last laugh, Lanky can hardly cope with this o ut-of-the-blue white-wash.

Breen also brings in birth (a supporter’s wife is delivered of twins while he is at the match, the miming of her labour amusingly confused with the scrums on-field) and death (the father of one of the Irish players dies while watching the match). Too neat a pairing? Perhaps, but this doesn’t detract much from a delightful evening.


The Sunday Times
Review by Denis Walsh
January 13, 2002

Munster woos West End

The province’s famed victory over the All Blacks is brilliantly tackled amid the bright lights of London

The actor Malcolm Adams is sitting in his dressing room at the Duchess Theatre in London’s West End, reflecting on the life of Alone It Stands. From this elevated place, it is a panorama stretching out below. The night they staged the play at Dundalk rugby club is far off in the distance but it is no strain on his mind’s eye. These were the nights that made them. The only costumes for the show are All Black jerseys in the first half and Munster jerseys in the second but that day the bag which should have contained the Munster jerseys returned from the laundrette stuffed with duvets. On another night they might have laughed and put it down to “showbiz, darling” except that in the audience was a critic from RTE Radio’s Arts Show. At the intermission they were presented with Dundalk rugby jerseys and told to make do. “It was obviously jerseys they had played in and hadn’t washed,” says Adams, “I swear to God, the smell. We get so close to each other on stage with all the srums and rucks and what have you that I was almost throwing up. Awful, awful, awful.”

The critic loved it. They all did. For almost two-and-a-half years Alone It Stands has been propelled on a swell of critical approval and popular acclaim. It has washed up in many places, but none so exotic as this, none so unlikely. John Breen’s ingenuous portrayal of Munster’s victory over the All Blacks in 1978 was conceived and designed to be played in rugby clubs but now it is in the second week of a six week (sic) West End run. Across the road the musical Buddy Holly is in its 13th year; a hundred yards away stands the Theatre Royal on Drury Lane, London’s most stately theatre. Such a milieu. All of the English broadsheet newspapers have sent along their critics and, but for a couple of pointed exceptions, they have been charmed. For Breen the gratification is enormous. “In the West End you are in the heart of things,” he says. “You have to justify your presence there. It’s like playing tennis at Wimbledon. ‘Am I good enough to be on centre court?’ ‘Is the play good enough to be in the West End?’ The critics have said, ‘Yes it is’.”

The play took off as a cult classic and soon became something of a mainstream phenomenon. Its last run in Ireland extended to nine months, including four weeks at the Gaeity Theatre in Dublin and three weeks at the Olympia, packing out venues which hold more than 1,000 people. It has been seen by nearly 120,000 people in Ireland alone. It took Breen six months to write and once the cast of six were chosen they “shacked up in a house in Limerick” and rehearsed for six weeks. It was written without a set and without props save for two benches at the side where the cast occasionally draw breath and sip water, though never all together. The six actors never leave the stage and between them they play almost 60 roles, from Tom Kiernan and Tony Ward to a barking dog and a chorus of chanting earthworms. Don’t ask, you gotta see it.

They started off on byroads and sometimes went off-road. In their second run they played the high-security wing of Portlaoise Prison. An intimate gathering of 50 or so of the most dangerous criminals in the country. Midway through the first half the lights failed. “It was mad,” says Adams. “Immediately they were blaming the screws for turning them off. One of the prisoners said ‘Right no one gets out of here until the lights come back on’. The next scene was the one with the All Blacks’ coach, who is a real authority figure, and they all just shut up. It was a really interesting response. They liked the play though, they got a kick out of it. Afterwards people came back stage and we met the Border Fox (Dessie O’Hare). I guess he’d been in jail for 15 years at this point and he was big into yoga – so he was really mellow which was so incongruous with the history this man has. As we were leaving there was suddenly a spontaneous round of applause from the prisoners out on the landings. We literally walked a gauntlet of applause. Such a strange experience. These hardened men going ‘Yeah’.”

They took the play to Glasgow and to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and then to another festival in Tasmania. The good word had preceded them and the shows were sold out before they arrived. When they finally moved from small venues to big theatres they inevitably made the jump in Limerick. Acceptance there doubled as an imprimatur. One night all of the local rugby club presidents and their committees came together and the laughter extended the show by 15 minutes. The Munster team came too, a few days before they beat Toulouse in the semi-final of the European Cup two years ago.

Three of the original cast are still with the show. Niamh McGrath is the only one who hasn’t missed any of the 430 or so performances which is an extraordinary feat of endurance in such a physically demanding production. A knee injury has haunted one of the cast recently and though they stretch and warm-up before they go on stage all of them have suffered a little from the strain. Cabin fever, though, would have done for them all by now if it wasn’t for the esprit de corps. Before the show arrived at the Duchess they had always changed in the same dressing room. Now they have private rooms and they say they miss the group dynamic. The price of success. On their first night in Waterford rugby club they couldn’t have charted their journey. Reaching the West End, they couldn’t be more faithful to the story they tell.


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