If there is a theatrical and creative equivalent of marmite, Mrs Brown’s Boys is it.
I went to see it onstage at the Pavilion Theatre in Glasgow, many years ago and unashamedly laughed out loud and constantly. I was an Assessor for the Scottish Arts Council at the time and felt I was perhaps slumming it by going…
It was, to an extent, new. It was certainly a throwback to the past, following the tropes of humour long lost to our variety stage whilst being edgy enough to suggest it had something a tad filthy to say.
It has been argued that it was designed to get the generation that had been missed out in the latest wave of comedy and drama on board. It did that.
It could also be argued that the generation of BREXITEERS, Daily Mail buyers and those who thought Benny Hill a comedy genius were left without a natural go to source of humour; Mrs Brown opened her arms wide and welcomed them in.
Following a series of theatre tours that hit the likes of Glasgow, Liverpool and Newcastle as well as the Irish constituency that brought the whole thing together, there came a TV series.
It was popular.
It was highly popular.
It won awards and contempt in equal measure.
The star of the show and its principal, Brendan O’Carroll, never minded. He was as popular as his show was divisive. He cared not because all the critics never gambled their house, their career and their futures, he did so and never did so, because he lacked confidence.
When he though he had a winner, many years before he got the BBC series, O’Carroll had put Mrs Brown onto a video. It was filmed somewhere on location in Ireland and took all the swearing out; it is dire.
Mrs Brown’s Boys worked because the rhythm of the naughtiness comes with the industrial strength language. Billy Connolly knew how to use it, Brendan O’Carroll knew when to use it; please note the comparison ends there…
When Mrs Brown went from the stage to the TV, he retained some of the things that had been popular live – the swearing, the breaking of the 4th wall and the lack of pretence that he was a woman. O’Carroll was clever precisely because he knew what his audience wanted.
And he gave them it when he made Mrs Brown’s Boys, D’Movie.
It was not that much better than the videos from years previously.
It did give him a slot on the chat show circuit and whilst those of us with a critical eye were not convinced, enough went into movie theatres to make it a success. It should be remembered that The Shawshank redemption bombed at the box office…
Mrs Brown is back in theatres now.
With Mrs Brown D’Musical.
He is no longer in the Pavilion in Glasgow but is in the SECC. From a 1,000 seat proscenium arch theatre to a cavernous arena – such is his popularity that mere theatres are no longer big enough.
The problem may be – the material.
From the beginning of his BBC show, the TV versions were exactly the same as the theatrical visions. I chuckled when I saw the live stuff, laughed less when I saw it on TV.
When an original cast member decided to leave the show, he opened a window on tensions behind the whole enterprise. In the same way that O’Carroll had managed to use the lack of pretence in his work onstage and on screen the departing actor – who was also his agent – was replaced by another actor after Mrs Brown’s fictitious son Rory went through a face lift – see what he did there… The original actor, explaining his exit spoke of the fact he did not want to, once again, perform the same material around the world – it was an Australian tour that seemed to break the back of this actor’s patience, though he was highly complimentary of O’Carroll and grateful for the work he had been given.
If the material was beginning to creak, perhaps the concept is now too, beginning to struggle.
D’Musical got a review in the Guardian. It merited one star out of five. I can guarantee that not one audience member will be put off by that fact. The Guardian readership are not the target audience. That Mrs Brown’s Boys appeals to the type of audience that might not be interested in challenging and truly edgy material does not diminish the fact that they pack folk in. They get an audience who are used, now, to going to see a play – of sorts.
There might not be a place for the audience to go as this adult style pantomime may be the extent of the offer. It may mean that the only next step for them is to wait till Brendan comes back round again. It may though get tired even for the aficionados who buy the tickets, manage their night out round it and end up laughing as they chew the carpet in crude joy. As for those of us with an admiration for O’Carroll’s chutzpah, I will leave it with the last paragraph in the Guardian review – it captures my thoughts exactly – “This cast can sing – and dance. More invention and attention to detail from the creatives could have made this a dangerous, genre-defying event, instead of the insipid retread of old ground that it is.”