Friday 24 May 2019

Maeve Binchy's novel Light a Penny Candle gets a charming stage makeover

Light a Penny Candle

Gaiety Theatre, Dublin  Until May 4

Clelia Murphy, India Mullen and Kate Gilmore in Light A Penny Candle. Photo: Caleb Purcell
Clelia Murphy, India Mullen and Kate Gilmore in Light A Penny Candle. Photo: Caleb Purcell

Katy Hayes

This was Maeve Binchy's first novel, published in 1982. It deals with complex issues surrounding marriage and motherhood, including abortion. But, fundamentally, it is a hymn in praise of female friendship.

Galway girl Aisling and her family play host to Elizabeth, a 14-year-old Londoner who is sent to Ireland in the 1940s to escape World War II. Decades earlier, Aisling's mother, Eileen, was dispatched to an English school to escape the Irish Civil War and was befriended and socially protected by Elizabeth's mother. The favour is now returned.

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The girls go to a convent school together. Aisling baptises Elizabeth a Catholic, and the young Londoner develops a crush on Aisling's brother. When the time comes for Elizabeth to go home, the two girls make promises of enduring friendship. They vow to bury a dead body for each other in the future, if necessary. These girlish promises of help in a time of strife are called on later in demanding ways.

Binchy's début novel came out from behind Edna O'Brien's shadow. It feels like an updating of O'Brien's The Country Girls. Though set in the 1940s and 1950s, the lens is very much that of the 1980s, when Irish women of ambition, like Binchy, were beginning to assert themselves and raise their voices. The nuanced treatment of abortion is in contrast with the polarised political discourse at the time of its publication.

Kate Gilmore gives a stellar performance as Aisling. Hints at sentimentality in the narrative are constantly undercut by her destabilising, funny and irreverent performance. Ste Murray shines as Tony, who makes a journey from goofy kid to thuggish husband, without losing his humanity. Clelia Murphy, in a strong performance as the mother, captures an emotional wisdom.

Shay Linehan's adaptation is taut to begin with but the shape gets baggier in the second act, as hugely complex issues such as marital violence, impotence, and drunkenness are covered in rapid succession. Maree Kearns's clever design concept, a striking skeletal backdrop created from the shapes of different windows, elegantly caters for every setting. Conleth White and Eilish Murphy's atmospheric lighting smooths out the location transitions.

Peter Sheridan, directing for Breda Cashe Productions, has a sure sense of the social contexts, but also pierces the emotional heart of the story. The show kicks off with the pressures and tragedies of war, but the final battleground is the domestic. And the final saving grace is that of female friendship.


Quest play doesn't find the right tone


Mick Lally Theatre, Galway Until Tonight, then Peacock Theatre, Dublin from Apr 30-May 11

First produced in 2004, Trad by Mark Doherty is revived by Cavan-based Livin' Dred Theatre Company for a national tour. It is about 100-year-old Thomas and his Da as they set off in search of the son Thomas has never met. The child was the product of a casual encounter with a "forward" woman called Mary when Thomas was 29. The son would now be 70.

The play is a quest narrative; if the pair do not find the long-lost son, they will at least find a story. The writing wears its debts to Flann O'Brien and Samuel Beckett heavily. Absurdist in style, the play is mildly amusing, rather than out-and-out funny; its philosophy is muddled. Emmet Kirwan as Da and Seamus O'Rourke as Thomas do their best to keep the banter aloft, but interest peters out. Clare Barrett enters as an old lady, Sal, with little effect. But she makes a brilliant fist of her second cameo as Father Rice, whose over-the-top presence perks the show up considerably in its later stages.

Jim Doherty's traditional music composition is played live on stage by Tony Byrne on guitar and Andy Morrow on fiddle; this is a pleasing element, but the musicians are not sufficiently integrated into the show. Druid actor Aaron Monaghan directs this unfocused piece with an uncertain hand.

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