Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Least Like the Other: Irish National Opera’s 70 minute take on Rosemary Kennedy is music theatre at its best

15 January 2023

A horror story brought frighteningly to life.

Least Like The Other

Stephanie Dufresne, Ronan Leahy & Amy Ní Fhearraigh (Photo: Kip Carroll)

The Irish National Opera’s acclaimed music theatre piece by Brian Irvine and Netia Jones made a triumphant, if unsettling appearance at the Linbury Theatre. Few contemporary works have bristled with such inventive energy, delivering a sucker punch that catches the audience completely off guard, leaving it reeling. Least Like The Other, Searching for Rosemary Kennedy manages to say more in its brief 70 minutes than many operas achieve at twice, or even three times that length. This in itself is testament to the brilliance in which Irvine and Jones have tackled their dark and troublesome material – the lobotomization of Rosemary Kennedy at the tender age of 23.

A life shrouded in secrecy, and consigned to behind closed doors, her story is both fascinating and tragic in equal measure. Entirely airbrushed from the Kennedy dynasty, Rosemary had learning difficulties following an horrific birth, grimly detailed in one of the many voice overs, laconically delivered by one of the actors in such a matter of fact way it sent shivers down the spine.

“Few contemporary works have bristled with such inventive energy…”

Least Like The Other

Amy Ní Fhearraigh (Photo: Kip Carroll)

With the liberal use of videos and projections, Jones has created a mesmerising visual metaphor for Irvine’s troubled soundscape. Indeed all the components of this remarkable work are indivisible from one another – which is exactly what exemplary music theatre should be. With the players positioned in boxes either side of the Linbury stage, at times improvising, sometimes accompanying a pre-recorded soundtrack, the angular orchestral textures come to life under Fergus Sheil’s experienced baton. The playing is beyond reproach.

Actors Rohan Leahy and Stephanie Dufresne bring the story to life through spoken dialogue, and in Murine Bloomer’s choreography lurch between the threatening and the blacky comedic, in dance routines that are redolent of Morecambe and Wise, but witnessed through a distorted prism. As Rosemary Kennedy, Amy Ní Fhearraigh delivers a performance that is pitch perfect. She meets the vocal acrobatic challenges head on – often required to deliver lines at either extreme of her range, and sometimes through a loudhailer – she brings the character’s harrowing experiences to life.

Least Like the Other is one of those rare pieces of music theatre where everything works across multiple levels. It’s a blistering indictment on what so many people, especially women and gay men, were put through in order to ‘cure’ them. Told without sensationalism, it made its point all the more effectively. To say it was ‘food for thought’ would be an understatement. Least Like the Other is without a doubt the most challenging and thought-provoking piece of music theatre I’ve seen since Philip Venables’ blistering 4.48 Psychosis, and deserves to have as wide an audience as possible. It’s one of those pieces that gets under your skin – unforgettable!

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Least Like the Other: Irish National Opera’s 70 minute take on Rosemary Kennedy is music theatre at its best