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Happy families are pulled apart

Our New Girl

Gate Theatre, Dublin

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Annie (Blaithin Mac Gabhann), Richard (Aidan McArdle), Daniel (Conor O Hanlon) and Hazel (Catherine Walker) in Our New Girl at the Gate

Annie (Blaithin Mac Gabhann), Richard (Aidan McArdle), Daniel (Conor O Hanlon) and Hazel (Catherine Walker) in Our New Girl at the Gate

Annie (Blaithin Mac Gabhann), Richard (Aidan McArdle), Daniel (Conor O Hanlon) and Hazel (Catherine Walker) in Our New Girl at the Gate

A prickle of fear runs through Nancy Harris's latest play. Her characters' fear emerges only when the fabric of lies on which their lives are based, consciously or otherwise, breaks down beneath an avalanche of truth - but for the audience it's uneasily present throughout.

And for this, Harris's skill in drawing characters, and her wild, even untamed imagination are responsible. We recognise the situation, and it scares the hell out of us.

A chic London household, mother heavily pregnant with an apparently much-wanted child to join eight-year-old son; father an eminent plastic surgeon fawned upon for his frequent trips to the hellish aftermath of disasters, natural and man-made, to help alleviate the suffering.

But the little boy is increasingly troublesome, and his mother is increasingly overwhelmed by domesticity, as she realises that abandoning her successful legal career was not necessarily going to lead to a fulfilled life.

As it dawns on her that she is trapped in a situation of her own making, and from which there is no escape, her husband, like so many people intent on saving the world from itself, is far less interested in saving those closest to him.

And blind to danger signals, they both manufacture separate boxes little Daniel can be shovelled into. Both are marked 'manageable'.

Enter the New Girl: the nanny from a farm in Sligo, a rock of sense and empathy… apparently. She's been hired by Richard while he was in Haiti when Hazel emailed that she couldn't cope. Except he didn't consult Hazel.

And there's something odd about simple Annie: her calm is uneasy and in her simplicity she keeps putting her foot in things between the couple; in relation to each other; and in relation to their dealings with the increasingly difficult Daniel.

The sense of dread increases as the adage that damaged people cause damage creeps into your head; it's not the damage caused by Hazel's neurotic hysteria and frantic attempts to be "good". That's recognisable.

The inside of a damaged person's head is different, as is the inside of a disturbed child's.

Our New Girl is a terrifying psychological thriller constructed by a writer whose mastery of her trade achieves new heights with each piece of work. Harris strips away the surface to reveal the darkness as surely as Richard scrapes away the hideous scars of his patients. But the result is deeply uncomfortable in Harris's hands.

The outcome is unnervingly fractured and mocking, which could create directorial problems. But Annabelle Comyn's approach is to underplay superbly against almost explosive lighting from Aedin Cosgrove in Alyson Cummins's cool set; and the mood is completed by sound and music by Philip Stewart.

The performances are almost magically perfect: a naive stillness that becomes increasingly threatening from Blaithin MacGabhann as Annie, hysteria verging on destruction from Catherine Walker as Hazel, and blundering, self-important narcissism from Aidan McArdle as Richard.

Sunday Indo Living