Friday 24 May 2019

A penny candle still burns bright

  • Light a Penny Candle

Gaiety Theatre, Dublin

  • Tintown

Factory Space, Sligo

India Mullen and Kate Gilmore in Light A Penny Candle
India Mullen and Kate Gilmore in Light A Penny Candle

Emer O'Kelly

Maeve Binchy's millions of fans worldwide loved her books. And anyone lucky enough to have met Maeve Binchy loved her. Not only without ego or malice, she was generous, funny, and made everyone she met feel good about themselves. But that doesn't explain what amounts to the magic of her work.

The first of her novels, Light a Penny Candle, was published in 1982, and was an instant (worldwide) success. Binchy, sneered at by feminists and literary hierarchy alike, died in 2012. That was the signal for her to be claimed as a great artist and a feminist leader. And now her first novel has been adapted for stage by Shay Linehan (at the Everyman in Cork and the Gaiety in Dublin).

The story of two girls, who meet in the west of Ireland in 1940 when English Elizabeth comes as a war refugee from Blitz-ravaged London to Aisling's happy rural home, it traces their journey from 10-year-old gawky impertinence through to sometimes bewildered maturity. They light penny candles in church when they make wishes - few of which come true.

But friendship endures through Elizabeth's blighted love-affair in London and subsequent abortion, and Aisling's disastrous marriage to a sexually impotent, violent alcoholic.

The novel's plot is as mundane as it is gently told and brings the characters glowingly to life. And that is what is missing in Linehan's plodding, superficial adaptation, which manages to kill off any sense of period. (For instance, Elizabeth's access to an abortion is the snap of a finger, at a time when abortion was still illegal in Britain.)

Also missing is the giddiness of girlhood, and in the later stages, the women's terror at standing trial for Aisling's husband's death.

Under Peter Sheridan's skilful direction which does its best to overcome this, Clelia Murphy and Fionn Foley - as Aisling's classic Irish Mammy and drunken husband respectively - deliver best, with Kate Gilmore as Aisling rather held back by India Mullen as Elizabeth - I didn't like her English accent.

Maree Kearns designs (well), but the lighting is iffy (Conleth Murphy and Eilish White).

*******

We've grown up enough in this country to allow satire in relation to our past. But it's usually satirical buffoonery. Serious comedy is new. And Tintown, at Blue Raincoat's Factory space in Sligo, is serious comedy.

It's a one-man play written and performed by new playwright Bob Kelly, telling the story of the Curragh Camp during the 1940s, with a dash of the kind of personal history which led to men being interned there for various IRA activities, some treasonable and violent, others pathetic.

"Attend to your intellect," our narrator is told by the camp's IRA leader when he arrives there. There are going to be classes. One faction says learn Irish and Russian, because in years to come (when the IRA has beaten the State) they're the only languages that will be needed. The authorities (representatives of the wartime de Valera Government, as well as the Fine Gael party (blueshirt fascists) offer classes in needlework and other crafts. Another faction is of the opinion that the only lessons needed are in bomb making. And everyone goes to Mass.

The narrator's Uncle Paddy, a veteran of the Spanish Civil War, knows a fascist when he sees one. But our young IRA volunteer learns that the IRA "is not a left-wing organisation". That's one hut's philosophy. "The IRA is not a political organisation; it's the legitimate army of the 32-county Irish republic." That's another wing. There's a way out: take a solemn oath to abandon all subversive activity. And many do, knowing they will spend the rest of their lives looking over their shoulders, branded as traitors to "the cause".

Kelly writes and performs with fierce, almost manic intensity, drawing verbal pictures of other inmates and bringing alive the viciously hard conditions of detention as well as the internal faction fighting between the proponents of different types of a Republican Utopia.

The overall atmosphere is charged with hatred - despite the gallows humour, and you can't help reflecting on the events of Easter weekend 2019: same hatred, only now it's not caged.

It's a wonderful, sobering production, terrifically directed by Niall Henry.

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