Sunday 23 September 2018

The surreal present and a serious past

  • All Honey, Bewley’s Café Theatre, Dublin, Until Jan 27
  • Typhoid Mary, Viking Theatre, Dublin, Until Jan 20
Surreal: All Honey at Bewley's Café Theatre
Surreal: All Honey at Bewley's Café Theatre

Katy Hayes

All Honey is a new madcap comedy produced by Sad Strippers Theatre which surfaced in last year's Dublin Fringe Festival. It gets a well-deserved revival here. Written by Ciara Elizabeth Smyth, it is set in the familiar space of a spare room while a house-warming party is in full flow outside. The characters slam in and out of the door, while a variety of romantic and sexual dilemmas cause unfolding problems.

Ru (Danielle Galligan) and Luke (David Fennelly) host the party and are the more anchored and not-obviously-crazy core of the play. Mae (Ashleigh Dorrell) is a borderline hysteric who has correctly twigged her boyfriend Barry (Keith Jordan) is having an affair, by piecing together some unlikely clues. Her best friend Ru manages to figure out who Barry is having the affair with. He is due at the party later, and Mae is going to confront him "in front of everyone". The totally crazy Val (Ciara Elizabeth Smyth) shows up at the party, though she was specifically not invited, and proceeds to spread her brand of provocative social interaction about, imbibing copious amounts of gin and locking herself in the bathroom. A late appearance by Barry injects a new level of urgency to the plot.

This show is full of energy and youth. As a new Irish play, it creates a world of impetuous hedonism, where the brakes of social norms do not apply. The young people depicted here are monstrously self-obsessed; their dramas are small and intimate and inward looking. At least three of the characters are borderline sociopaths.

Smyth owes a clear debt to the surrealists, with their use of dream imagery, animal masks, and a refusal to engage with serious emotional through-lines. The scenes are very funnily written, with excellent gags: Val is looking for something under the sink "to wash off the stench of mediocrity from the party". There is arch satire on the nature of romance and the emotional neediness of women, including the role of therapists and life coaches. The play relishes its farcical nature, with all the banging in and out of doors that is implied by that.

Sinead Purcell's set, made from pink, blue and yellow cubes, is a broad comedic statement. And Ellen Therese Fleming has a lot of fun with the costumes. Jeda de Brí directs with an audacious hand, pushing the performers up to a toppy style, which is totally in harmony with the writing. Ashleigh Dorrell stands out as the neurotic Mae, and the writer Smyth does a terrific job as the socially obnoxious Val. At 50 minutes, this makes for a great fun lunchtime show.

Typhoid Mary is based on a true story of an Irish woman who emigrated to New York in 1874 and "worked her way up from nothing" to be a successful cook on Park Avenue. When typhoid fever broke out in a number of her employers' households, Mary Mallon was blamed and incarcerated against her will. She was alleged to be an asymptomatic carrier of the disease; she never accepted this verdict. The one-hour play tells the story of her various detentions by the authorities, starting in 1907 and ending with her death in 1938.

The trauma of Mary's engagement with the New York public health authorities is intercut with her personal life story: her father leaving the Co Tyrone farm to her male cousins; her emigration at the age of 14 on a coffin ship; her life with an aunt in New York. There is a sweet love story at the core of the tale. Mary was released from detention after a number of years on condition she didn't work with food. Unable to live on the pittance she earned as a laundress, she changed her name and got a job as a cook in a hospital. Typhoid fever breaks out again; she is discovered and once more locked up.

Director Bairbre Ní Chaoimh and performer Charlotte Bradley have pitched Mary at the rebarbative end of the spectrum, creating a brutalised character who is full of bitterness. There is no warmth in the interpretation, though there is plenty of lyrical tenderness in the writing. This approach makes for a strong dramatic tone, but loses something of the potential for intimacy. It is hard to truly sympathise with a person who is so angry and hard.

Penned by the late Eithne McGuinness, this one-woman show was first staged in 1997 and performed by the author. The subject matter of the degradation of people demonised as contagious would have had an edge at that time, with the AIDS epidemic having recently dominated public discourse. The play is all about hygiene hysteria, with Mary constantly talking about cleanliness, and scrubbing everything. There is much talk about the Irish being drunk and filthy and there is the suggestion that Mary was particularly demonised because of her nationality.

It is a fascinating story, this downside to the American dream, where a hard-working young woman can fall on the wrong side of luck and circumstance. The writing is drenched in culinary references, with Mary herself becoming the ultimate meal, made up of "beaten eggs" and served up to the fever laboratories of New York for experimentation; you can now get a taste of her life at the Viking Theatre.

Three to book...

1  BEAUTIFUL: THE CAROLE KING MUSICAL

Bord Gáis Energy Theatre, Dublin,  until Jan 20

This jukebox musical tells the story of King’s rise to become one of the most successful solo acts in pop history. She wrote the music to a generation, with hits such as ‘(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman’.

2 SAVE + QUIT

The New Theatre, Dublin, until Jan 20

Two dispirited Dubliners and two lonely Londoners share glimpses of their lives. Homelessness, as well as political and racial tension, feature in this 2015 glimpse at life in the big city. Written by Sophia Leuner.

3 IF WE GOT SOME MORE COCAINE I COULD SHOW YOU HOW I LOVE YOU

Project Arts Centre, Dublin, until Feb 3

Ennis, Halloween and a party to go to. John O’Donovan’s debut play explores themes of sexual identity and racism. Made a splash with its first production in London last year.

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