Tuesday 24 April 2018

A Katie for our times

Review: Katie Roche, Abbey Theatre, until September 23

Sean Campion, Caoilfhionn Dunne and Siobhan McSweeney in 'Katie Roche' at the Abbey. Photo: Ros Kavanagh
Sean Campion, Caoilfhionn Dunne and Siobhan McSweeney in 'Katie Roche' at the Abbey. Photo: Ros Kavanagh

Katy Hayes

The last Abbey production of Teresa Deevy's groundbreaking 1930s play was in 1994 on the small Peacock stage. It followed the protests surrounding the poor representation of women in The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing. A young Derbhle Crotty played Katie in a poignant, pleasing manner. Wild, of course, but making nice all the same. That was the 1990s way: Try to be likeable and reasonable, and surely you cannot be denied.

Director Caroline Byrne and lead actor Caoilfhionn Dunne have eschewed any people-pleasing approach and produced a raucous Katie for 2017 on the big Abbey stage. There is no hint of the "gamine elfishness" that was admired in the original 1930s production. It is a bold move by actor and director. This woman is not making nice. She is demanding and difficult, but the two men love her all the same.

Creating an effect reminiscent of the early work of director Garry Hynes, Byrne has sought out the rebarbative core of this text. She has stripped away the nice. Her approach is highly visual; she creates images off-scene, with characters first being revealed in the background landscape. In Joanna Scotcher's audacious era-blending set, symbolism abounds. The kitchen table is an altar; Katie is both sacrificial lamb and penitent devotee. There is a Jacob's ladder, ostensibly to put up pictures of saints. But Jacob's ladder leads to heaven, therefore death. There is a tiny doll's house (Ibsen) that appears to be built astride a grave (Beckett). This is no pretty home-sweet-home interior; there is muck everywhere. Ray Harman's compositions also strike notes of discord - there is no consolation to be found in them.

Katie's own affections are true; she is unambiguously in love with her husband, just disappointed that he treats her without equality. Sean Campion plays husband Stan with gentle bewilderment. The older man who marries the young illegitimate girl and confers respectability on her, he, too, is trapped by this stupid world where he cannot properly communicate with his wife. Kevin Creedon, as the young admirer Michael, is touching as he identifies his mother as the one who poisoned his prospects with Katie. It is left to the men to strike notes of poignancy. The people in this play are mostly good, it is the system that is bad. The darkness of the 1930s is embodied by Reuben, the holy man of the road, given vicious life by Donal O'Kelly. He carries a big stick.

This meaty play and fiercely intelligent production make for a fascinating night at the theatre. Bring your brain.

Book it now

1 RIGOR MORTIS — URBS INTACTA MANET

Theatre Royal, Waterford

September  14 — 16

The subtitle is the motto of Waterford city, meaning the city is untaken. A two-hander by Pat Daly, this play is set in the locale and written in a local idiom. Mourners arrive at a funeral to find the deceased missing.

2 THE HUMOURS OF BANDON

On tour  until October  9                          

Written and performed by Margaret McAuliffe, directed by Stefanie Preissner, this is a funny play about Irish Dancing ambitions. Next week: Droichead Arts Centre, Drogheda; Backstage Theatre, Longford; and Belltable, Limerick.

3 THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY

Dolmen, Cornelscourt September  12 — 16                                                                                     

A stage adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s only novel. Drawing-room comedy meets Gothic morality-tale as a handsome young man frolics about London, while his portrait in the attic reflects his debauchery.

A super-slick Miss Marple whodunnit

The enduring popularity of crime stories is a mystery in itself. The characters tend towards the thinner end of the spectrum; there is little social analysis; there is often some humour, but usually not a lot. However, the unravelling of plot is one of the most entertaining elements of story - across theatre, film and fiction. And Agatha Christie is the doyenne of crime.

Letitia Blacklock is a nice woman running a curious household in 1940s suburban England. She has a number of live-in guests, including relatives, people down on their luck, and an old school pal who is going senile. An attempt is made to kill Letitia by an intruder, who apparently shoots himself by accident in the confusion. Inspector Craddock is assigned to the case, and local amateur sleuth Miss Marple sticks her oar in. At first glance, the characters seem innocent enough. But it appears they are all not entirely what they seem, and there is the prospect of big money floating around in the background. Any or all of the people present could be a suspect and the story takes some surprising twists.

The action unfolds in a mahogany-panelled drawing room with chintz-covered furniture and Dresden porcelain, oozing Agatha Christie's own brand of ultra-civilised but murderous Englishness. The production is as well oiled as the hinges on the supposedly sealed door. The performances are uniformly slick, with Janet Dibley as the gracious Letitia particularly impressive.

Directed and designed by Michael Lunney for UK producers Middle Ground, this show operates at a very safe level; no risks are taken. But they know exactly what they're doing. Your enjoyment will depend on how susceptible you are to the pleasures of plot; if that's your thing, you'll love it. You may suspect who the villain is, but you won't be sure, until the very end.

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