Tuesday 15 October 2019

Sinking in the Quicksand of autism


New Theatre, Dublin


My Aunt Bee

Viking Theatre, Clontarf

Donna Dent as Joy and Rex Ryan as Joe in Quicksand
Donna Dent as Joy and Rex Ryan as Joe in Quicksand

A new play delves into the trauma of family life and a challenging condition, says Emer O'Kelly.

Elizabeth Moynihan's Quicksand is described as a dark comic thriller. It's a hugely inapposite description: it's not a thriller and there's nothing funny about somebody being trapped within the developmental condition of autism. And it's not funny, either, for those who love them and consequently find themselves responsible for their actions.

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Joe is a tech genius: so successful at his work that he has been able to buy his mother a house. (His father walked out early in his life, unable to cope with his son's problems.) But Joe wants to be famous, and is now about to go on trial for having hacked into a major Chinese government site.

His mother is worried half to death, and increasingly unable to cope with the manifestations of his autism (refusing to leave his computer to go to the bathroom, leaving the room littered with bottles filled with stale urine among other obsessions).

And then there's Petra, Joe's "friend" whom he refuses to bring home. She does exist, but she knows nothing about him until he begins stalking her. Tragedy is inevitable.

It's not the first time Moynihan has written in this territory, and her writing has great empathy and uncondescending understanding; she has the knack of conveying a multitude in a couple of lines, and the back-story of a family destroyed by desperation is skilfully drawn.

And of course it's helped by the cast; Donna Dent as the mother Joy, bringing her fine talent back to the stage after an absence of some years; and Rex Ryan, who is increasingly impressive, in the role of Joe.

They are well directed by Emily Foran, but the technical side of things is messy: Bill Woodland's lighting dropping and rising at inexplicable moments, and almost throughout leaving the actors' faces in shadow, while Lisa Krugel's set of pointless screens and lighting bars bears little relation to the mood of the piece.

It's a co-production at the New Theatre between the theatre and Idir Mna.


Bee is that gas figure of fun the "returned Yank", regarded with a mixture of awe and bewilderment back in Ireland. And the concept was out of date even by the time John Ford made The Quiet Man.

So Seamus O'Rourke's My Aunt Bee seems like something out of Town Hall theatre, circa 1950, which isn't exactly a good start.

Nor does the middle get better: the audience is expected to believe in a 100-year-old woman who left Ireland in 1937 flying back unescorted, with a trunk containing most of the engine of a pre-war Packard car with which she hopes to entice an 80-year-old lover whose return to Ireland has preceded hers.

She dumps herself on her recently-bereaved 50-year-old nephew and proceeds to bully him mercilessly while drinking him out of house and home. The author attempts to give the piece modern relevance (I suppose) by making Aunt Bee utterly foul-mouthed, her speech peppered with terms that in the 1950s would have had the parish priest demanding to have the Town Hall burned down.

And then towards the end, the "comedy" is replaced by a load of sentimental soft-core philosophising about love and relationships.

Try as I might, I couldn't find the piece anything other than insulting to anyone over the age of eight, although the first night's audience gave it a rapturous reception.

Even that excellent actor Bairbre Ni Chaoimh couldn't salvage it as Aunt Bee, being fresh-faced and in her 40s, and not managing to look anything like a centenarian. The author played her supposedly bemused nephew, and Laura Dowdall did a more than competent job directing the unpromising material.

It's at the Viking Theatre in Clontarf.

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