Wednesday 17 January 2018

Theatre Review: Love, pain and no happy endings

Conall Keating and Amilia Clarke Stewart in the spectacular Leper+Chip
Conall Keating and Amilia Clarke Stewart in the spectacular Leper+Chip

Emer O'Kelly

It's probably a bit unfair to compare Leper+Chip with Enda Walsh's first success, Disco Pigs. It's an absolute cracker in its own right. But it can undoubtedly be called a Dublin version of the Cork saga: two violent, star-crossed teenagers finding love in a sea of cracked heads, blood, booze, desolation and violent hyper-ventilation of every imaginable kind.

The author Lee Coffey is a stand-up comic; and his first play makes it clear that his comic abilities are as black, fast-paced and, of course, violent, as any alternative circuit could hope for. Leper got his nickname from the large burn scar on his leg; Chip got hers because she has a chipped tooth. They both hate their nicknames. They meet at a party where a fight develops: Chip swings a few bottles, but it's her best (girl) mate Pringle who floors Leper, while his best mate, pint-sized Ricky, suffers enough bodily damage to land him in hospital for a few nights.

That's only the beginning; overwhelmed by a lust that bears a bewildering resemblance to true love, the anything-but-virginal pair try to sort out their feelings in the midst of vengeful mayhem that includes Chip visiting her older best friend Micko to look for advice, only to find him on the floor with his stomach ripped out by a meat cleaver. And the owner of the cleaver is still on the premises.

And even Leper's new-found sense of violent chivalry can't help him protect her despite his willingness to give as good as he gets. You almost feel guilty for laughing – this is a story of true horror and, sadly, it's entirely believable. And of course, the truest comedy is found in tragedy – there is no happy ending for Leper or Chip.

Leper+Chip is a spectacular writing debut, and spectacularly performed by Conall Keating and Amilia Clarke Stewart, bewildered hearts and desperate vulnerability almost terrifyingly close to the surface of their bravado. It's directed with pretty well faultless precision by Karl Shiels, and is lit by Eoghan Carrick.

It's a Bitter Like a Lemon production at Theatre Upstairs at Lanigan's bar on Eden Quay in Dublin, playing lunchtime Tuesday to Saturday, and evenings Thursday to Saturday.

It was in 1962 in Dublin that the late Jack MacGowran gave the premiere performance of a play called End of Day. It was to become Beginning to End, the devastating monologue play that MacGowran devised with Samuel Beckett, and which came to define the actor's career as a Beckett interpreter. (Beckett later wrote Eh, Joe for him.)

Now, two theatre people from a new generation have devised a play called All a Dream which is effectively a version of Beginning to End, and is billed as having been inspired by the MacGowran work. Eerily, it is performed by an actor called Declan McGauran; and the similarity doesn't end there.

McGauran is far too young for Beckett's lugubrious tramp looking back on his life as he welcomes the approach of death; but at times he has resonances of the great actor's tone and physical mannerisms – and I write having been lucky enough to see MacGowran revive his extraordinary performance at a Dublin Theatre Festival in the 1970s. (The memory is marred by its late-night slot, which was interrupted by loud snoring, and which at curtain-time I identified as having come from the RTE religious commentator Sean MacReamoinn.)

The protagonist in All a Dream is in some ways the male counterpart to Mai in Beckett's Footfalls, a person dominated by memories of fractured childhood and duty, a kind of parody of family life.

He has escaped physically, as Mai has not; but he is as locked into the repetition of ritual as a survival mechanism, as she is. He speaks of his mother, a white figure at a window as he walked away, the embodiment of "sad helpless love" that melds into the image of a rabbit threatened by a stoat ... and then to the cold, Grecian tragedy: a drowning of self in a ritual of sucking pebbles as a grip on either reality or unreality.

All that is left is welcome death. But even still, he recalls, now on possibly the last day of his life, he kept sucking his stones.

And while McGauran, in this production (at Chancery Lane pocket theatre in Dublin) is far too impish, far too whimsical, and far too vigorous for colourless memory, he is also intensely pained and painful; this is an intelligent and heartfelt performance, even if it is out of tune with the steady tenor of Beckett's grey world.Directed by Will Irvine, it deserves a further life.

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