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Next Door’s Baby at Theatre at the Tabard

Next Door’s Baby is set in the 1950s and tells the story of two families, the O’Briens and the Hennessys who live next door to each other in a poor part of Dublin – they seem to be ordinary families but they both have, deep, dark secrets that they don’t want the other family to know but they live so close together that that might be an impossible task.

Next Door's Baby. Miriam and Conrad.
Next Door’s Baby. Miriam and Conrad.

If that sounds like an intriguing and interesting tale, it should be, but unfortunately Next Door’s Baby just doesn’t really work. The music and lyrics were written by the late Matthew Strachan and the production features some unmemorable songs, the melodies of which have strong echoes of Stephen Sondheim. The book by Bernie Gaughan just isn’t focused enough and at times the story meanders, seeming to be about the rivalry of the two matriarchs, Mrs O’Brien (Jackie Pulford) and Mrs Hennessy (Abigail Williams) before shifting to the blossoming friendship between their two daughters, Miriam Hennessy (Shaylyn Gibson) and Orla O’Brien (Amber Deasy) who are the ones with the dark secrets before it homes into the love life of Mrs O’Brien’s eldest son Dickie (Ben Hannigan) so the audience never gets a chance latch on to the core relationships as it swings to and fro. And to complicate matters even more, there’s also a subplot about the local newspaper’s beautiful baby competition that both families are desperate to win.

On a simple set, to the left, the upwardly mobile, snobby Hennessys sit at a nice table and chairs whilst to the right the more working-class O’Briens have to make do with a rough-hewn table and benches although these are moved around as the scenes change to a park bench and the inside of a church.

As for the plot, unfortunately, its full of holes and there are more questions than answers. How does Mrs O’Brien pay the bills and feed a family of six with no income apart from Dickie’s small contribution? Why don’t the O’Briens realise that the man who is shouting at Miriam is her supposedly dead husband? Why do the middle-class Hennessys live in this street? How did Orla keep her secret from the rest of the family? All very baffling.

It’s Orla’s story that’s at the nub of the narrative. Her terrible secret is telegraphed quite early although it’s not fully given away until late in the second act so the tension that should have been there and would have kept the audience wondering far longer, is missing.

What stands out are some of the performances which are excellent. Jackie Pulford as the widowed Mrs O’Brien tugs at the heartstrings as the mother who cares deeply for her family and wants to hold it all together, scrimping and scraping and robbing Peter to pay Paul. The scene where she dances with the ghost of her beloved husband is very touching. Amber Deasy making her professional debut as the troubled Orla makes the audience feel her pain as she tries to cope with what life has thrown at her. The other standout is Ben Hannigan as Dickie whose superb tenor voice gets all the best songs and he sings them mightily. The show’s highlight is a song about Kilburn (possibly called “Kilburn” – there wasn’t a song list in the programme) and had the other songs been of the same ilk, would have given the musical a powerful voice of its own – it sounds like the kind of song sung in Irish pubs and pulsates with Irishness – if only the other songs had been as strong. It’s so obviously the best song in the show that it’s reprised after the show ends with lots of energy from the whole cast and some wonderful Irish dancing from Hayley-Jo Murphy (an Irish dancing World Champion) who plays Sheila O’Brien, the religious zealot of the family with great charm and innocence.

Next Door’s Baby is an interesting, if flawed musical – if only there had been more songs like “Kilburn” – it would have been even better.

3 Star Review

Review by Alan Fitter

1950s Dublin and two families living in adjoining terraced houses, become locked in a bitter matriarchal feud about a Bonny Baby competition run by the local newspaper.

Mrs O’Brien is widowed, hard-up, but ferociously proud of her five children – Dickie, Orla, Sheila, Larry and little Conor, the baby who will put their name in lights. She is icily polite to ‘her next door’, Mrs Hennessy, whose lifestyle is one of ease.

Each family nurses a secret, one that could unite them or tear them apart. It’s only on the eve of the Bonny Baby final that we discover their fate.

Directed by Keith Strachan with live music and featuring a cast of eight, this musical play of bickering neighbourhood families plays a limited four week run.

Music and lyrics by Matthew Strachan, Book by Bernie Gaughan

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