Wednesday 24 January 2018

Tyranny of a suburban diva

THEATRE EMER O'KELLY

TAKE one ruthless "businesswoman" newly climbed from the gutter who believes "it's better to be the divas who do than the divas who don't", and proceeds to act on it by means of preying on other women every bit as insecure as she is, but not yet lost to the softer emotions such as pity, affection, and good old-fashioned conscience. Give the women fairly typically miserable lives, so desperate that a three-bed semi and coffee at the shopping centre represent the height of fulfilment and sophistication, and you have fertile ground for the Ellamenopes of this world.

That's the premise of Wayne Jordan's new (in part devised) play Ellamenope Jones for Randolf SD/The Company playing at Project. Sophie Sunday is out of work, hopeless and helpless and longing for love. Cleopatra Box has been dumped by the boyfriend who gave her herpes, and is too afraid even to sleep in the bedroom they shared while she longs for integration into the community, represented by the simplicity of a yoga class.

Her big sister Cryola has the status Cleo longs for: she actually employs Cassandra to clean for her, a superior young woman of dignity and perspicacity reduced in circumstances by virtue of being Ukrainian in hostile, xenophobic Dublin.

Cue Ellamenope's pyramid-selling scheme, which depends on all the women being as determined and conscience-less as she is herself, as they strive to recruit others to the empty promises that will strip them of their (usually meagre ) savings, or inspire them to fund their entry into the scheme by various unspecified acts of dishonesty. Except Cleo Box doesn't quite have the guts to destroy other people. And then Cassandra displays an unexpected determination to stand against the tyranny, whatever the cost to herself, up to and including a few violent beatings.

But in an allegory for post-boom Ireland, Ellamenope survives to live a sun-kissed life, leaving a trail of destruction behind her.

Ellamenope Jones is in the form of a musical play, with Carl Kennedy responsible for the funky score (played live with sound engineering by Sean Dennehy) and the author responsible for the direction, which includes some classy choreography. In fact, the whole thing is classy and clever, even if it does tend to lose itself in pretension towards the end.

Randolf SD stalwarts play the women: Kathy Rose O'Brien as Ellamenope; Natalie Radmall Quirke as Cassandra; Elaine Fox as Sophie, and Louise Lewis and Sarah Green as the Box sisters.

"ANYTHING But Love," says its author Mary Coll, "clearly acknowledges . . . the residence of the novels of Kate O'Brien in my imagination . . . (but) it is most definitely not an adaptation of The Ante Room." Donough O'Brien's programme note says the play "may have a tenuous connection with" the novel . . . but "it is an independent work which stands on its own strength and vitality".

So far so good. In The Ante Room, set in the provincial Catholic world of 1880, and written by O'Brien in 1934, rich Teresa Mulqueen is dying, beset with worry about her dissolute son Reggie, who is slowly dying of syphilis. Her daughter Agnes shares her care with the nurse, Miss Cunningham. Her other daughter, Marie-Rose, returns with her husband Vincent for a triduum of Masses to be celebrated at the dying woman's bedside. The marriage is not a happy one, and Vincent is agonisingly and secretly in love with Agnes, who returns his passion. But beset with Catholic guilt as well as respect for her sister, Agnes refuses to go away with him. Vincent shoots himself, Reggie proposes to Miss Cunningham, who accepts, and Mrs Mulqueen dies comparatively happily knowing he will be cared for.

In the "independent" Anything But Love, rich Teresa is dying, worried about her dissolute son Ritchie who is a fairly successful pianist; he's gay and has contracted Hepatitis C. His sister Annie shares their mother's nursing with a Polish nurse Kalena, who at the end accepts a proposal of platonic marriage from Ritchie. In the meantime, the house's other daughter Marie Rose returns, not for Mass but for the death bed, accompanied by her husband Vincent who is secretly in love with Annie, who has rejected him although she returns his passion. She is not motivated by religious principle but by her love for her sister. In despair, Vincent takes a shotgun and blasts himself.

The "independence" that is claimed for the latter work seems to me to consist mainly in the removal of Catholicism from the Kate O'Brien mix, and a couple of name changes. It's not enough: not because the provenance remains recognisable, but because the work's premise quite simply doesn't translate into a world 130 years removed from provincial merchant-class Catholic Ireland of the 1880s.

Coll hasn't managed to make a credible leap to something that is recognisably 2010, independent or otherwise: it's just not possible to believe in these characters or their motivations, and when the first half ends with the lovelorn Vincent crying "I'm in hell," you feel no emotion whatever, not even impatience.

And when the whole thing ends with the shotgun blast outside the French windows, most of the audience seems uncertain what it was supposed to mean. Having read Kate O'Brien, I knew it was Vincent's suicide, but other people's obvious confusion was understandable as there had been absolutely no build-up, while the book is a miasma of religious faith, hysteria, prayer, and guilt, making it all inevitable.

It was an understandable gesture to choose a "new" Limerick play for the reopening of the Belltable Theatre in Limerick, but Anything But Love is unfortunately plodding and pedestrian throughout, Joan Sheehy's direction unable to lift the cast, Micheal O Suilleabhain's musical score a kind of pounding Celtic one-note samba at odds with the attempts at sophisticated living, and Kevin Treacy's lighting having no bearing on what's happening on stage.

And of the cast, only Cathy Belton as Annie/Agnes, plays with any conviction, while Malachy McKenna (usually excellent) is almost inexplicably bad as Vincent, and Malcolm Adams makes Reggie/Ritchie a caricature rather than a doomed depressive.

Not an auspicious debut for the revival of Limerick's premier theatre.

Sunday Independent

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