Catalpa, Paradise in The Vault, Review

Rating (out of 5)
Show info
35 Brookline
Alexander Neher (director), Donal O'Kelly (writer), Patrick Greeley (composer), Nate Kamiya (producer).
Joseph Freeman.
Running time

“Foolish man! Foolish foolish man! What I could have said was...What I should have said was...Why didn’t I just .. Show them...The pictures in my head...Why didn’t I – “

So says screenwriter Matthew Kidd as he tells us of his brush with Hollywood moguls and his failed attempt to pitch “Catalpa”, the greatest movie never made. Sick and tired and full of self-recrimination, he returns to his sparsely furnished bed-sit to pick over a trail of missed chances.

And so he re-runs what should have been, hopping onto the desk to become a sea-bird and setting up the establishing shot that will open the film. He soars over the choppy sea before - Caption: New Bedford, Massachusetts, April 1875. We zoom in on Captain George Anthony, not without his own problems, as he is conflicted between a death-bed promise to his mother not to go back to sea and the financial need to look after his wife and child.

In an attempt to make good and persuaded by his Father-in-Law, he takes on a mission to command the whaling ship Catalpa in the rescue of six Irish rebel prisoners from the then brutal penal colony of Freemantle, Western Australia. It’s a whale of a tale as our dramatist plays all the parts, from mother to every salty crew member. In flashback we see the events that led to the men being deported before cutting to the ship’s eleventh month voyage to rival Moby-Dick. It has all the stereotypical movie elements from the boy made good to the plucky underdog facing overwhelming odds.

Our lone actor throws himself around the stage as scenes pan, cut, focus and fade; painting the images with just a few props and no costuming other than a shawl. The language is glorious, full of onomatopoeia and poetic rhythm and rhyme.

This production drastically cuts the length of the piece and it feels somewhat frenzied, not allowing some of the poetic lines room to breathe and make it a more sentimental and less comic journey. The simple staging works well (in an ideal space that looks like a private screening room) but more could be made of the change from technicolour film world to drab reality.

Its nineteen years since the play (based on a true story) won a Fringe First award. This might not make the splash of the original, but for all its filmic allusions it's a great celebration of live theatre, as well as a comment on Hollywood’s shimmering illusion.

Show Times: 8 to 22 (not 9,16) August 2015 at 5.45 pm.

Ticket Prices: £6 (£4).

Suitability: 12+