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Theatre Review: a flawed tale of lust and betrayal

DESIRE UNDER THE ELMS: THERE are stones under my feet. To my left, there is a doorway – one that Eben Cabot and his father will come barging through several times tonight. So, you know, I have to watch that Ephraim doesn't clatter me over the head with his walking stick.

Indeed, the Smock Alley Theatre's stage is merely an open space on the floor, which is why its performers make use of everything they've got. And they couldn't have done this anywhere else.

Eugene O'Neill's American classic, originally set on a New England farm in the 1850s, has been dragged closer to home and further ahead in time by the Corn Exchange Company (Dubliners, Man of Valour), its director Annie Ryan adding Ulster accents to a Greek tragedy masquerading as a farmhouse soap opera.

It involves the Cabot boys' father returning home to his stony dwelling with a third wife, Abbie, who takes an immediate liking to the aforementioned Eben. And we all know where that one usually goes.


The other sons, Peter and Simeon, dream of setting off to California to quench their thirst for gold, because everyone wants to escape. Certainly, Desire Under the Elms is as much a story of greed, power and lust as it is of family hardships and broken relationships.

Peter (Peter Coonan) and Simeon (Luke Griffin) – a pair of twits who practically finish each other's sentences – insult their "new Ma" before heading for the boat. Eben stays behind, mourning his mother and doing his best to ignore Abbie's advances. There is a chemistry between the two, but it's best left to lingering glances and clenched fists, not bizarre innuendos and unbuttoned blouses. An eerie soundtrack plays its part.

The trademark Corn Exchange make-up isn't present, and the humour fizzles out once Griffin and Coonan (a marvellous duo) complete their scenes, but the company leaves its mark in other ways. Mostly, through a startling, physical performance by Fionn Walton (Eben).

Janet Moran (Abbie) makes for an enigmatic tease, but her awkward attempts at grief (and there is a grim finale in store) are no match for Walton's unsettling episodes of despair – though a wiry Lalor Roddy as Ephraim comes close. Overall, Desire ... needs work, but it's still a memorable offering courtesy of a skillful ensemble of theatre makers.

Running until October 13. 3/5