Sunday 18 February 2018

Writer's rich and playful debut is all heart



TO get a startlingly good, well-made, intelligent play with wonderful flights of imaginative fancy from what is usually called, somewhat insultingly, an "emerging playwright" is unusual enough. But when that play actually incorporates three separate dramas with subtly artful-linking progressions reminiscent of La Ronde, it's safe to say that we are witnessing the "emergence" of a major talent.

This is the case with Nancy Harris's No Romance, an Abbey Theatre commission playing at the Peacock.

Harris is the Pearson playwright-in-residence at the Bush Theatre in London, and has also been on attachment at the National Theatre Studio in London. And it's easy to see why. No Romance is her first play to be produced in Ireland, and we have to hope that the lure of London will not keep her work entirely from our shores.

It incorporates three separate stories. The first is played between two old school friends, now in their late 30s. Gail is a lesbian, something that ensured loneliness at school. But she has since forged what appears to be a glamorous and successful international career as a photographer, and has what appears to be a 10-year stable relationship with her doctor lover.

But Gail is more fragile than she seems, and her equilibrium is badly shaken when the apparently silly Laura arrives to have a series of slightly pornographic portraits taken as a present for her own (male) lover's 40th birthday. The interplay between the characters is never heavy-handed, and the pauses are as significant as the dialogue in this wry, under-stated examination of lonely women on the edge of middle age.

The second piece is comedy, as high as it's black. Carmel and Joe are in the funeral parlour awaiting the arrival of "the relations" for Joe's mother's funeral. Joe is spitting tacks because they've discovered that their recently university-graduated daughter has posted pictures of herself on the internet as the winner of a wet T-shirt competition from her holiday base in Australia.

But like a lot of men, Joe has different standards for men and for women. And the mayhem sizzles across the coffin where Mam's corpse lies peacefully clutching her Rosary beads.

The mood changes to one of apparent elegy in the final piece, where Michael and his 12-year-old son Johnny are "helping" Michael's 80-year-old mother to pack up her west Cork cottage preparatory to moving to a rest-home in Dublin. But Peg is made of stern stuff, her strength forged in the years of a harrowingly bad marriage to Michael's father, and has no intention of being brow-beaten if she can avoid it. The elegy for a life poured on the stones of weary self-sacrifice has more than one dimension, and old Peg has her own methodology for surviving lonely decrepitude.

The three plays display extraordinarily sure-footed writing and a depth of compassion and sly humour that bond into a dazzling debut. I haven't been this impressed since the advent of Eugene O'Brien on the writing scene 10 years ago; and No Romance is of an even more comprehensive theatricality.

Spirited playing from all the actors: Janet Moran, Natalie Radmall-Quirke, Tina Kellegher, Stephen Brennan, Stella McCusker, Conor Mullen and Daire Cassidy, (with Brennan, McCusker and Mullen particularly impressive). Direction is by Wayne Jordan, with set and lighting by Paul Keogan, and costume by Donna Geraghty.


Presumably no experienced playwright would produce a play without knowing what he was writing about.

So one presumes that Gavin Kostick knows some accountants, knows the procedures in an accountancy consultancy, and maybe even knows a venal accountant.

But the problem with The Sit at Bewley's lunchtime theatre in Dublin (originally seen in the Absolut Fringe last year) is that you can't for a moment believe in its two characters. And I certainly know quite a few accountants, consultants and otherwise.

The piece is effectively a 'sting' comedy, in which a very junior accountant spots a loophole in tax law, is conned out of it by a bullying senior partner unsure of her position in the company, who further cons him by trying to sell it to a rival partnership to advance her own career.

It's not quite clear why, except that she loathes her husband, who also happens to be the senior partner in her own firm... although the junior accountant doesn't know she's his wife (!). In addition, she feels hubby's putting her down because she's his wife and mother of his children.

Stings, on stage or in reality, need to be credible, and this one ain't. Annabelle Comyn's direction is unaccountably awkward, the two actors (Caitriona Ni Mhurchu and John Cronin) have articulation problems, and the former's shoes make such a din in the non-existent set as to boom around the place with every step she takes.

Sunday Independent

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