abbey theatre, dublin
It's good to see that writer Elaine Murphy has moved on from the sticky sweet concoction which was Little Gem, her first full-length play. Shush still has a high sugar content but it's palatably masked by other ingredients.
Fifty-something Breda (Deirdre Donnelly), forced into early retirement by an ungrateful Civil Service and abandoned by an equally ungrateful husband, is lining up the pills and gin when the doorbell rings. It's the boisterous, acid-tongued Marie (Barbara Brennan), the scatty but cuddly Irene (Ruth Hegarty) and Marie's responsible, health-conscious daughter Clare (Eva Bartley), bearing comically inappropriate gifts in surprise celebration of Breda's birthday. Joining this intergenerational girls' night is horsey neighbour Ursula (Niamh Daly), in need of broader working-class shoulders to cry on as her hubbie is having an affair, too.
The booze flows and in it men and marriage, kids, health-fadism and new-age quackery are all dunked. It's Marie's sourness that sets the tone, and keeps the play's maudlin undertow at bay, at least until the last 10 minutes or so.
Brennan, with her smokily drawling sardonic voice, restlessly plying the girls with drink, is at her energetic best, and has the play's pithiest lines. "She's the One," says Breda, in relation to her son's girlfriend. "If there's one there'll be another," adds Marie, the words dripping with bile.
Marie has an excellent foil in the colourful shape of fluttery, lepidopteral Irene, who is happy to be the butt of the joke, though the dour Breda is always rushing to her defence. Also mocked, though not mauled, is Ursula. She bakes Breda a chocolate cake "so healthy it's good for you" which sticks in everyone's throat and demonstrates 'Baby Sign,' sign language for babies, Irene predictably concluding that Ursula's child is deaf.
There's plenty of action, too, in Jim Culleton's well-choreographed production. Breda's house is falling apart, particularly the kitchen units, providing slapstick distraction in the weaker moments. Marie and Breda perform an impressive mock-serious tango which culminates in them being doused by a burst water-pipe, which is one silly step too far. But then for much of the time the play feels like a pilot episode for a TV soap.
The final minutes are rather self-consciously and implausibly ponderous, with Irene, of all people, confessing a sudden nihilistic desire to drive her car into a wall. As if, after all the verbal and physical knockabout, Murphy's reminding us that Shush actually has serious things to say.