Tuesday 16 July 2019

The Small Things: An indictment of censored lives

The Small Things

Old Cork Waterworks, Cork

Brendan Galileo for Europe

Bewley's Cafe Theatre, Dublin

Fionn Foley is manically energetic
Fionn Foley is manically energetic
Pauline McLynn serves up a savagely gentle turn in The Small Things

Enda Walsh is a master of visualising all of his unsettling plays, a visualisation without which, one is tempted to say, they might not have quite the impact that they do.

But he must surely have unbounded and justified faith in Pat Kiernan of Corcadorca, the company with which he had such a productive relationship in its and his own early years with The Ginger Ale Man and Disco Pigs (which made his name).

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The Small Things dates from 2005, and was written for Paines Plough and the This Other England season. Quintessentially English? No: like all plays with truth at their core, it has a universality, and in Kiernan's hands for the Cork Midsummer Festival, the protagonists could be from Sunday's Well in Cork, Dublin, New York, or Brisbane.

Prompted, Walsh writes in the programme, by witnessing his mother keep memory alive by talking to his dead father, The Small Things gives us a man and a woman, one or both of whom may be dead.

Living in isolation in houses that face each across hilltops, they address each other in their heads, their thoughts bound up through shared childhood and adolescent memories and experience.

The memories glow as they recall childhood meetings, when her controlling father finally permitted her out of the house, the mischief, the growing sexuality, all the familiar things as they attend the church fair, and the little boy recalls the delicious scent of his mother's bra (the same shape as a meringue) as he buries his face in one of its cups.

The woman now takes pleasure in solid little things: her collection of knick-knacks, who converse with her.

But there are also memories that they discuss only with the audience, memories too terrible to be at a conscious level, of a society where freedom, individuality and openness are punished.

And the wave of brutality creeps across the country, the blood pouring from mouths with tongues cut out. Are they the only survivors of this apocalypse? Did they survive? We are not told.

Staged outdoors at 10.30 in the evening at the site of the Old Cork Waterworks, The Small Things is played in traverse, the man and woman framed in their steel boxes with rods of light between them at times, at others isolated in their own lights. Lit and designed by Paul Keogan, with sound and music by Mel Mercier, it's a mesmerising experience, with Peter Gowen and Pauline McLynn offering savagely gentle performances, Gowen slightly unkempt, McLynn in a neatly old-fashioned suit looking eerily like a reincarnation of Elizabeth Bowen.

It's a triumph for Corcadorca.

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Brendan Galileo for Europe is not a play: it's a stand-up comedy routine. It premiered in the Dublin Fringe Festival, which embraces a lot more than drama. But the Artist Development Initiative in the Festival is a co-operation with Fishamble which is most certainly a theatrical company. Sometimes stand-up and theatre marry successfully; sometimes they don't. This falls into the second category, so definitively that one wonders at Fishamble's aquiescence in giving it a platform in its acclaimed Show in a Bag series.

Performer and author Fionn Foley is manically energetic, and seems to have a nice sense of irony buried somewhere in his performing subconscious.

But what comes through in the proposition of Brendan Galileo for Europe is a load of lame jokes and pretty excruciating impersonations of stock characters in small-town Ireland.

Foley's Galileo is wiped out in the local elections, so when his granny's dancing academy is about to be closed down as dangerous (it is) by the local gombeen men in Prospect, Co Galway, Brendan decides to stand for Europe. Then to get known, he spoofs his way into being Ireland's representative at Eurovision. Cue a load of would-be funny jokes about previous Irish entries. Then cue some "warm-hearted" triumphs.

All of this is delivered with a fever of physical intensity, leaving Foley bathed in sweat, but at least having proved, if nothing else, that he can actually dance up a storm.

Foley wasn't helped by an opening audience most of whom cackled loudly after every phrase, including hysterically funny (apparently) jokes like "I'm in the shower" when a doorbell rings.

Revived at Bewley's Cafe Theatre, it's directed by Jeda De Bri.

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