The Bill Naughton Studio at Bolton Octagon Friday 14th September 2012
Written by Joe O’Byrne. Directed by Ian Curley
Bolton-based writer/actor/director Joe O’Byrne’s one man play, ‘I’m Frank Morgan’, was written a decade ago, and is the first in the ongoing series of plays located on the fictional northern England estate of Paradise Heights. You may have seen the subsequent works such as ‘Rank’, ‘The Bench’, or his most recent ’Strawberry Jack’, but here we have something I just wasn’t expecting. I’d seen the excellent short film version of ‘I’m Frank Morgan’ (directed by Paul Murphy), and was riveted by the story of a cold-bloodied Irish loan shark operating with ruthless amoral efficiency before being stung to the core by the results of his actions against a family in debt. Frank Morgan is a terrifying creation; a man without pity or remorse, yet O’Byrne infuses him with just enough of a hint of humanity that one simply can’t help falling for his crocodile charm. I’d been told, by O’Byrne himself, that this updated (in terms of character and tone, yet retaining the exact same dialogue as the original play) version would illuminate a side of Frank never seen before. I had no idea what we were in store for, but knowing Joe’s proven track record for hard-hitting, ultra realistic, yet constantly surprising writing, I was prepared to be shocked. And shocked I was. This was Frank Morgan in a hell of his own making. A cesspit of the mind. Director Ian Curley has turned the character inside out and delivered the flip side of the Paradise Heights hard man. The set is Frank’s miserable, litter-strewn bedsit with the man himself seemingly a ghost in his own life. Has he had a nervous breakdown or are we being shown the inside of his head? Indeed, the play begins and ends with Morgan asleep on his scummy single bed, and perhaps this is all a very clever take on the state of Frank’s soul. Rising ever so slowly from his slumber, Frank takes his time shuffling around like a man in a daze, taking forever to make a cup of coffee and staring blankly ahead whilst waiting for his toast to heat. O’Byrne delivers a low key, mesmeric, and utterly disturbing performance that contrasts magnificently with his earlier, and well-established, hard-nosed portrayal. This is a shadow of a man, mumbling and stuttering his way through a lifetime of rage, sorrow and soul-destroying guilt in around an hour of real time. Director Curley adds spine-tingling moments such as Frank beginning the same speech several times in subtly different vocal styles, as if trying desperately to summon up the spirit of the man he once was. Anyone who has seen Frank Morgan at his terrifying best in the original play and film, or in other Paradise Heights instalments, will be shocked to see how far the man has fallen here. It’s a brave brave move on the part of O’Byrne the writer, and O’Byrne the actor shows us just how skilled a performer he is - taking the exact same character he’s played a hundred times before and presenting the same man gutted and skinned to the bone. This is an animated corpse of a man; indeed perhaps a man who has never been truly alive. A shade. An unpleasant aftertaste. A creature suffering damnation for the unending pain he’s brought into the lives of so many innocent others. Or was it all just a dream? Watch this space, because you can’t keep a bad man down.
It has to be said that this production was not an easy one to sit through; this was an evening that wore its audience down gradually and without pity. One could ask should we have been shown a few more flashes of the old Frank? Would a more varied pace have helped? Joe O’Byrne does not compromise, and here we had a great talent stretching the boundaries; probing his audience, testing his own performance skills, and bravely gnawing at the patience of his audience. I can imagine this parallel universe version of Frank Morgan working well as a short film, where O’Byrne’s screwed-up creation could frighten the living daylights out of us in extreme close-up. As a live performance there seemed too much physical space, and I felt the need to peer more closely into those haunted eyes. In real life I’d stay a million miles away from the likes of Mr Frank Morgan, but in artistic terms I’d like to be nose-to-nose; Frank should be on the screen. Trapped in a bottle like a poisonous spider. Ironically, for so huge a creation less is increasingly more. Maybe O’Byrne and Curley have fashioned a whole new beast here – Homeopathic Hell?
As an extra bonus, O’Byrne’s short film ‘The Watcher’ was screened during the second half of the evening. This gave us a chance to see Frank Morgan as we’ve come to expect him – clean, sharply dressed, and as cold as the hole where a politician’s heart should be. I’d seen and reviewed the film a year ago, but loved seeing it again, especially in the context of following the harrowing experience of witnessing Frank Morgan’s disintegration. Here’s what I said about it:http://fictionmaker.blogspot.co.uk/2011/07/watcher_5547.html
Another superb evening from The Bard of Bolton.
This review originally published (in a slightly edited format) at The Public Reviews http://www.thepublicreviews.com/im-frank-morgan-octagon-theatre-bolton/