Saturday 24 March 2018

Who's to blame for the bad old days?

  • The Unmanageable Sisters Abbey Theatre, Dublin

  • Holy Mary Viking Theatre, Clontarf, Dublin

The cast ofThe Unmanageable Sisters. Photo: Ros Kavanagh
The cast ofThe Unmanageable Sisters. Photo: Ros Kavanagh

Emer O'Kelly

In her programme note to her new play The Unmanageable Sisters, Deirdre Kinahan writes that she was determined to portray women "in all their complex glory, raucous, brow-beaten, jubilant, angry and hilarious".

With respect, women are more complex than that: they can also be gracious, rational, charming, thoughtful, compassionate, gentle, generous (to all, not just other women) and unselfish. But in the current climate, such qualities in a female are despised, even condemned, by their "raucous brow-beaten" sisters.

Just a thought.

And since Kinahan's play is a self-proclaimed contribution to the march of women through a newly found voice, here's another thought: Had The Unmanageable Sisters been written by, say, Mark O'Rowe or Conor McPherson, it would have been half the length and the better for it. They'd both probably have cut the entire first act.

Set in 1974, the era of Green Shield stamps, Kinahan's heroine Ger Lawless (Marion O'Dwyer), living in Ballymun, has just won a million stamps, and stages a stamp-sticking party for the (girl) neighbours, in preparation for transforming her home, and her life, with their bounty.

The audience knows, of course, that it's not going to be that simple and as Ger, two of her sisters and a plethora of neighbours squabble and gossip in an increasingly febrile, even feral, atmosphere (and entirely without alcohol) resentments as well as attitudes are well to the fore.

But the point of the play is the internal monologues given to the leading actors who reveal the state of Irish womanhood, from Dolly (Rynagh O'Grady), sadly single and living for the fortnightly half-hour visit of the brush salesman; Teresa (Catherine Walsh), trapped into caring for her semi-catatonic mother-in-law (Noelle Brown); Angie (Catherine Byrne), the relict of a Magdalene laundry, whose infamous secret is a weekly visit to Joy's Nightclub - just to dance; and most significantly, Ger's sisters Rose (Karen Ardiff) and Patsy (Lisa Lambe).

Rose harbours a secret: she had been "caught" as a youngster, and felt forced to marry the father, whom she loathes physically and emotionally. Result: she is deliberately poisoning her daughter's mind against all men.

Patsy is the pariah: she "escaped" to live with a boyfriend 13 years earlier. Living in glamorous sin, they all believe, when she turns up. But Patsy is getting older, and has outlived her usefulness to her pimp boyfriend, and she's on the street.

Add in three representatives of the younger generation, one of them pregnant and terrified, knowing she must have an abortion (he was married and has disappeared) but not knowing where to turn for the money to travel to England, or even how to find out the logistics.

Yes, it's a hideous picture, worth being angry about. But, interestingly, Kinahan makes it an attack on Ireland with the device of a muted angry singing of Amhran na bhFiann at the end.

The play is a re-working of French Canadian Michel Tremblay's Les Belles-Soeurs: his writing is obsessed with Catholicism. And one might have thought that Faith of Our Fathers might have been more reflective of where the accusing finger should point in this version.


When Eoin Colfer wrote Holy Mary for Blackstairs and the Wexford Arts Centre in 2011, he set it locally, and its two little girls Mary and Majella were very different from each other.

Mary Leary was central to it: her mother, struggling financially after her husband did a runner, was unable to provide the all-important First Communion frock for her small daughter. Majella Barnes, on the other hand, had it all - spoiled brat that she was - and was the bullying queen of all she surveyed.

Seven years later, and extended (actually over-extended) for Breda Cashe Productions, into a full two acts, Holy Mary is now set in a Dublin housing estate of the kind usually called "deprived". And Majella has now taken centre stage, with a lot of complex emotional problems due to her "new daddy" being Mary's now ex-daddy.

So Majella being beastly to Mary is due to self-confidence issues - not to being over-indulged by affluent parents. And where the original dialogue was enchantingly innocent and credible, Colfer this time round has given seven-year-old Majella a vocabulary that includes "microscopic" and a number of psycho-social terminologies.

It's a huge pity Colfer didn't leave his original charmer as it was, with Mary triumphing by becoming as big a bully as Majella (in other words, realistic as well as comic) rather than expanding into what looks like a box-ticking exercise for "social problems" - even though it is still funny and appealing.

The new production is directed by Aoife Spillane-Hinks, with the hugely talented Mary Murray as Mary Leary and the almost equally talented Maeve Fitzgerald as everyone else, but principally as Majella.

Jack Kirwan's inventively minimal design works well, it's lit by Andy Murray and sound is by Fiona Sheil. It's at the Viking Theatre in Clontarf, Dublin.

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