Himself and Nora, Minetta Lane Theatre, New York
Photo: Matthew Murphy

Himself and Nora

Reviewer's rating

This new off-Broadway musical, centered around the love affair between James Joyce and Nora Barnacle, carries the tagline ‘the greatest love story never told’, and its greatest problem comes in convincing us that this is true. There’s something initially quite lovely about James and Nora’s (Matt Bogart; Whitney Bashor) flirting and romance, but that seems to be all we get – it’s difficult to see anything beyond that, to see the depth of love that inspired the musical. The work takes great delight in its own rambunctious sauciness, in Nora’s lascivious words and their lust for each other – and it is fun, but it’s not enough to sustain the whole thing, despite Bashor’s clear star quality.

The work is painted in enjoyably broad strokes, with its pop-folk soundtrack full of the kind of booming crescendos that are supposed to stir, that are transparently telling us exactly what we are supposed to be feeling. Often, these songs, despite their lack of subtlety, work very well, the live orchestra adding warmth. Bashor, the clear highlight of the show, gives the often-insightful lyrics the delivery, pathos and depth they deserve. However, River Liffey, a song which consists of nothing but Irish place names repeated and given greater meaning, different meaning, through intonation is probably the best song in the show – something the creators appear to be aware of as they use it again in the finale. Given that it is a joyful song about Ireland, and not about how much they love each other, its place as stand-out number seems somewhat indicative of the show at a whole. Himself and Nora is at its most interesting when it indulges in James and Nora’s words, in the playfulness and utter joy with words that often defines his work, twisting the language in moments that are genuinely something different from most mainstream theatrical offerings.

The cast is small, with the other three cast members (Zachary Prince, Michael McCormick, Lianne Marie Dobbs) performing some rapid-change multirole. Dobbs, in particular, demonstrates some impressive metamorphic ability, with a haunting turn as the schizophrenic Lucia.

Despite its subject matter – and perhaps as a deliberate attempt to focus instead on the relationship rather than the movement – there are few modernist touches. The work is cyclical, opening with a surrealist death scene that feels somewhat jarring in the face of the subsequent concentration on simple human emotion. The priest (the amusing Prince) appears frequently, a kind of smug personification of Catholic guilt-cum-ambassador of God. His role is clear from the beginning, and there a couple of moments where it is rather heavy-handedly spelled out, a tell-not-show style that occasionally appears elsewhere in the production. Joyce’s life spent in exile means that we get the full gamut of questionable European accents – Bogart’s Irish accent, in particular, needs some work.

Bogart’s performance seems somewhat lacking next to Bashor’s, perhaps missing the charisma that anybody playing a role like James Joyce needs to have. Joyce’s frustrating ego is frustrating for us, too, and perhaps that is a victory, given that he does manage to win back our sympathy by the end. It is in Joyce’s more fragile moments that Bogart does well, bringing a hang-dog desperation to the role.

Moments of physical theatre feel somewhat amateurish, but Bashor’s performance, which is consistently full of a touching sweetness, pulls it together. Touch, Kiss, the final song before the finale, has a kind of melancholic minimalism that the show could have done with more of. Himself and Nora is a flawed work, but, nevertheless, a show with a great deal of fun to offer – and one that is worth it for Bashor’s performance alone.