Elaine Murphy scored a deservedly huge hit with Little Gem, the three-hander monologue which touchingly painted a picture of Dublin family life through the eyes and words of an elderly mother, her disillusioned daughter and her hopeful granddaughter.
So there have been high hopes for the much larger undertaking of Shush, commissioned by the Abbey for performance on the main stage. It's difficult to follow a spectacular success so early in a career, and second plays are notoriously tricky waters for a writer to navigate.
In Murphy's case, she has not quite managed it, but perhaps it is not entirely her fault: the scale of the production is rather too large for the piece, and there is an uneasy sensation of padding to extend the 'life' to main stage dimensions.
Breda is celebrating her fiftysomething-th birthday alone with a bottle of vodka. Her husband has left her for another woman, but his spoor still marks his trail around the house. Enter her lifelong friends Marie and Irene, Marie's daughter Clare, and relentlessly trendy next-door neighbour Ursula, all bent on cheering her loneliness by means of a few more bottles.
The comedy is light and at times genuine, and the characters are drawn with considerable skill, although the attempt to represent 'types' of attitude is a bit heavy-handed at times. Shush is the kind of play from a younger generation writer that might well be in the running as successor to the work of Bernard Farrell; but Murphy has yet to master the edge of mordant misanthropy that has sustained the Farrell career
Deirdre Donnelly heads the cast as the bereft Breda. With Barbara Brennan and Ruth Hegarty as her stalwart friends, Brennan's real-life daughter Eva Bartley as Clare, and Niamh Daly as Ursula, the five turn in energetic performances, although there are tendencies to overplay (with the exception of Donnelly) throughout, a fault particularly evident in Daly's performance.
And some of this, it would seem, can be laid at the door of director Jim Culleton: there's an impression that he is trying to make more of the material than it can cope with.
The set is designed by Anthony Lamble, with costumes by Niamh Lunny, and very erratic lighting by Kevin McFadden.
Tony Chesterman's adaptation for the stage of Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is both imaginative and graceful: it effectively pares the book down to three segments, the great hell-fire sermon, and the debates between Stephen and the University Dean on the one hand, and his friend Cranley on the other. And, for the most part, it works.
Jimmy Fay's direction of this in-house production at the New Theatre in Dublin plays a great part in the success with its quirky and highly visual approach. The first half is devoted to the hell-fire sermon, as the young Stephen Dedalus (Lauren Farrell) quakes in the pews of Clongowes Chapel during the annual retreat, and vows to cleanse himself in confession of all-natural teenage urges. And while one might argue with the decision to divide the great set-piece between three actors (the main segment given over to an impressive Charlie Hughes), it lends dramatic variety if not equal force to all parts.
And there is a gently sardonic contrast as the second half opens with a dream-like representation of Stephen's ardent lusting for the girl he sees as he walks the strand, a directorial concept that triumphantly delivers an affirmation of joyous life over masochistic guilt. There is a problem, however, with the two debates. Marcus Lamb as Cranley is a credible devil's advocate as he argues with Stephen on the topic of religious formula as an unimportant gesture within the framework of dialectic unbelief; but Farrell's delivery is almost totally lacking in tonal variation, almost as though she is not listening to herself, or has not registered the meaning: this is, after all, a conversation. The same is true of Katie O'Kelly (with an unconvincing English accent) in the role of the Dean, which renders that debate lifeless rather than thought-provoking.
The excellent set and lighting are by Orla Reynolds and Cathy O'Carroll respectively, with costumes by Jessica Dunne and sound by Shane Fitzmaurice. Neil O'Driscoll is responsible for the film inserts.
The production may not be perfect, but it should certainly inspire anyone who has not read the Portrait to seek it out. And that can't be bad.