How times have changed. When Eric Cross original book, The Tailor and Ansty, was published in 1942, it was banned on the grounds of indecency. Telling of how the real life tailor, Timothy Buckley, and his wife, Ansty, told stories nightly to all who gathered by their fireside, the booked faced censorship because the stories were deemed offensive and immoral. Today we are as likely to praise them for their nave charm and P. J. Connors stage adaptation for very much the same reason.
Connors play retains the tailors storytelling at its heart, but moves the time period forward to the characters old age. No longer is his kitchen packed with guests, and so we as external viewers must suffice as his audience. In this respect, the tailor, in continuing to narrate his stories, has taken to talking to himself in the absence of company. He maintains his spirit and an interest in what is around him, which makes us laugh, but similarly we are saddened at watching a frail old man in the twilight of his years. The tailor ceases to be a mere storyteller, but a flesh and blood human being with all the vulnerability that goes with that.
The tailors philosophy is that learning comes not from books, but from ones own observations of everything around him. He proclaims that no-one who cares to see whats in front of him could ever be bored, and that even the richest man can still only sleep in one bed at a time. Its a wonderfully fresh perspective to encounter in the modern world, and his stories about marriages, wakes and cows illustrate that he practises what he preaches. For example, his story of how a heron who found that the eel it ate immediately slipped out its rear end until it swallowed it pressed up against a wall, reveals amazing observational skills. It made me feel sorry for an age when any such story was immediately dismissed as filth, for surely the people missed out on so much.
Ronan Wilmots performance as the tailor could hardly be faulted. He narrated his stories and conversed with his wife so naturally that his lines fused effortlessly with his actions, such as putting the kettle on the fire or lighting his pipe. Nuala Hayes as Ansty was equally strong, her gestures enabling us to appreciate how this couple knew each others faults inside out, but ultimately loved each other very much. Within the kitchen of their cottage in West Cork, where the entire drama took place, some of the most moving moments occurred during the silences between them.
One weaker aspect of the play, however, concerned the burning of the book about them. In the play they read in the paper of the publication of the book, The Tailor and Ansty, and the third act begins with them salvaging the remains of it from the fire, three local priests having just burned it in front of them (an event that actually happened). They seem too unmoved by this, saddened mainly by the fact that it cost 8/6. This may have been intended to say something about their overall attitude to literature, but more might have been revealed about their characters had we seen a greater reaction to this act of vandalism.
Nevertheless, in The Tailor and Ansty we receive a wonderful insight into two anarchical characters who live by their own rules, ignoring time (they wind their clock daily but then hide it), and making a crossword grid conform to the answers that they wish to give, rather than vice versa. It is a powerful piece, made all the more so by the intimacy of the Old Red Lion theatre, and two first class performances that I rather doubt I shall see bettered all year.