When Maire Clerkin was little, Riverdance wasn’t yet a phenomenon, so she kept her uncool weekend Irish dancing competitions a secret from her English friends.
But now she shares them with us. Watching Clerkin’s feet as she introduces the show with a dance is mesmerising, and at once brings home how utterly amazing it is that they will move like that – let alone the sheer dedication that must be required to train to this standard. Incredibly, it’s her right arm that gives her jip: keeping it fastened to her side as she performs head-high kicks is the real feat, apparently mastered only when she won a competition with a hidden safety pin catching the sleeve of her dancing dress to the seam of the bodice.
Clerkin is engaging as she impersonates both the little Maire, who grew up among Irish families settled in Crouch End, London, and her hard-to-please mother – the local dancing teacher. Maire’s petulant foot-stamping and sulks are forgiven as she competes with an entire troupe of dancing girls (and their paying parents) for her mother’s attention, as well as for coveted medals.
Family photos make an evocative backdrop, and help bring to life both the young Maire – in her embroidered dresses – and her mother. The latter cuts a handsome figure, fleshing out the ogre her daughter remembers for her exacting standards. Those standards were also applied to her brother, who was forced to dance and, worse, to wear a kilt.
Clerkin’s heartfelt tale takes in growing up Irish in England, the confusion of being classed as English on family trips back to Ireland, and being re-named Pat by a secretarial agency because they feared she wouldn’t get a job as Maire (it’s pronounced Maura). There’s also her first kiss, and the new-found freedom of disco dancing with six Cherry Bs inside her. More poignant anecdotes include the time Maire was prevented from collecting her hard-won medal because she’d been forced to loan her dress to another dancer – leaving Maire stuck dress-less in the changing rooms while someone else enjoyed the glory on-stage.
The show is amusing, but not the ‘arse-clenching comedy’ promised on its flyer. It could be tightened up a bit: some of the scenes are a overly long, with the messages landing way before Clerkin has finished narrating (for example) her first kiss. The same applies even to the otherwise-entertaining story of the exam day when she put herself forward to become an adjudicator.
But the finale, a dance choreographed from recognisable highlights of the show, scores top marks – those feet! A solo autobiographical show is perhaps one of the most difficult to pull off, but Clerkin’s is a story well-told.