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Happy Birthday Dear Alice review: Precise, deadly and laugh-out-loud puncturing of middle-class greed

Happy Birthday Dear Alice, Pavilion Theatre, Dún Laoghaire until May 21; then Everyman, Cork from May 26-28 and nationwide tour

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Mark Lambert, Catherine Byrne, Andrew Macklin and Sarah Madigan in Happy Birthday Dear Alice. Photo by Colin Shanahan

Mark Lambert, Catherine Byrne, Andrew Macklin and Sarah Madigan in Happy Birthday Dear Alice. Photo by Colin Shanahan

Mark Lambert, Catherine Byrne, Andrew Macklin and Sarah Madigan in Happy Birthday Dear Alice. Photo by Colin Shanahan

Happy Birthday Dear Alice by Bernard Farrell was first staged almost three decades ago; it was a terrific vehicle for the comic talents of the great Anna Manahan. It is a farce-shaped play, where escalating chaos is carefully sculpted to deliver a laugh-out-loud experience with surprising twists.

Farrell’s comedies have been very influential in Irish theatre; his legacy can be seen in recent work by Una McKevitt and Lisa Tierney-Keogh.

In this play, Farrell has a subtle sociological point about the treatment of elder citizens, but the primary objective is to entertain. It is set in 1993/94: Alice (Catherine Byrne) is a widow living alone and her grown-up children have unilaterally decided she should move into a nursing home; they have their greedy eyes on her house.

Her daughter Barbara (Sarah Madigan) is spearheading the plan, supported by her useless husband Cormac (Mark Fitzgerald) and her vain brother Barry (Andrew Macklin). Barry, having left his wife, has his much younger girlfriend in tow, the sweet-hearted Sandy (Elishka Lane). Alice’s lifelong pal Jimmy (Mark Lambert), who went deaf fighting on the Normandy beaches, is hovering in the background: her only defender against attack.

Living in England and America, the children’s attempts to bully Alice into a nursing home occur when they visit on her birthday each year. Farrell’s target for his satire is the Irish middle class and the puncturing is precise and deadly. These are shallow, nasty people, deadened by thwarted ambition and unhappy marriages.

Director Jim Nolan, for Four Rivers Theatre Company, delivers the plot bombs with great precision. Somebody hides in a cupboard; someone’s paternity is questioned; the locked room’s contents are splendidly revealed.

Byrne is a sincere Alice, not as wacky as Manahan was, but more real and true. Lambert, as Jimmy, is a more natural comedian, and the battle between the older folks and the young people is very satisfying. Madigan is brilliant as the wound-up daughter. Her rising apoplexy is purely funny and peaks perfectly in the second act. This show is a reminder that there is something truly satisfying about sitting in a darkened theatre and simply having a laugh.

Joyce’s elusive daughter dances into life

Somewhere in the Body
Project Arts Centre, Dublin, until May 28

As part of Dublin Dance Festival, choreographer Áine Stapleton has created this striking 30-minute dance film installation. It is inspired by, and interrogates, the persona of Lucia Joyce, daughter of James Joyce.

Lucia had a developing career as a dancer in the 1920s before poor mental health scuppered her prospects. Katie Vickers dances a version of Lucia and Colin Dunne dances a version of her father. It is filmed on sandy Spanish shores, amongst classical ruins, and in a claustrophobic basement.

The abstractions of modern dance are linked to the abstractions of modernist literature and mental illness. Light sculptor Pat Kramer conducts a neat dialogue between the coloured neon lights on the film, and their counterparts in the gallery. Costumes by Ivan Moreno Bonica are a work of art in themselves, including an exoskeletal flower-covered short dress.

Remi S Langseth’s music is a combination of melody and discord, working well with the mood shifts. Less successful is the voiceover; the acoustic in the gallery is indistinct, and it is hard to make out the lines from the syntactically irregular Finnegans Wake. Overall, the installation has the effect of making you feel Lucia rather than think about her, conveying this elusive woman from history in a language she herself might recognise.

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