Tuesday 22 January 2019

A tour de force of drama

John B Keane's son Sean in attendance for powerful, funny Big Maggie performance

Edward Hayden ‘Teddy Heelin’ and Brid Richardson ‘Maggie Polpin’
Edward Hayden ‘Teddy Heelin’ and Brid Richardson ‘Maggie Polpin’
Brid Richardson (Big Maggie) with Sean Keane, son of playwright John B Keane, and director Margaret Rossiter

The magical language of John B Keane - famous worldwide for capturing the raw side of Irish rural society - was brought to life on St Michael's Theatre stage recently when the New Ross Drama Workshop cast performed Big Maggie, writes David Looby.

Starring Brid Richardson, the show ran over three sold out nights of raucous laughter, hand-over-mouth shock and impassioned drama - all the elements of a truly brilliant play.

Directed by Margaret Rossiter, who chose to direct Big Maggie as the text of the John B. Keane classic play interested her greatly as it explores universal themes of family, revenge and power struggles, the play highlights how Irish society in the 1960s was patriarchal.

Up until his death Walter Polpin, Maggie's adulterous husband, clearly held the power. After his death Maggie becomes stronger, more determined and resolute and noticeably more independent and self-assured. She becomes the imposing and intimidating woman who embodies the social developments of the 20th century and sets about 'knocking her children into line' in the manner she sees fit.

Keane's talent was to present characters all of us are familiar with in our towns and villages, particulalry strong women, and capture their vulnerabilities, their wit, strength and directness.

Brid Richardson plays the dour, stoic matriarch Big Maggie Polpin - one of Keane's most formidable female characters. Nicky Flynn, Peter Rothwell, Brid Moloney and Seona O'Connor play her four long suffering children and the play demonstrates the fractious relationships Maggie has with each of her children. Mr. Byrne, the stonemason with romantic intent was played with great aplomb by Peter O' Connor with Edward Hayden taking on the role of the sweet talking womaniser Teddy Heelin. Mary Madden and her mother were played by Sinead Croarkin and Martina Kavanagh.

The funereal atmosphere of the opening set designed by Terry Brennan and Macdara Murray, sets the tone for the riveting family drama ahead. Acerbic, killer one-liners fell from Richardson's lips and the Listowel playwright's language found perfect expression in the way the actress barely opened her mouth to deliver Maggie's stinging patter.

Like the mighty River Feale that flows through Listowel, Keane's language is powerful and erosive.

'Tis the hardness of concern. Always remember that about me,' Big Maggie says at one point, summing up her character. A playwright ahead of his time, Keane was a feminist and champion of women's rights at a time when it was all but sacreligious to be so: 'Mighty Amazons of women who built empires and then gave it all away to be treated like dirt,' Maggie declares as she blocks her son from marrying beneath the family.

As the titular character of the play Big Maggie says: 'My sex-life, my morals, my thought, my word and deed were dominated by a musty old man with a black suit and a roman collar and a smell of snuff,' Here is a tough, defiant woman who will not bend to the demands of her children, even when they are reasonable. She ends up alone, but defiantly so, vowing to enjoy the company of men, but always on her terms. The Kerry playwright's son Seán was in attendance and remarked afterwards that it was a brilliant production, complimenting Brid, Margaret and the cast. The lighting by Paul Malone and the back stage team were led by Kate O' Keeffe as stage manager ably assisted both front and back of house by Paul Walsh and Bride Walsh (who did an amazing job on props creating a perfectly authentic feel for the production), Joe Bridges, Carol Stacey, Margaret Saunders, Anne Kelly, Tom Doyle, Brian Geoghegan and Cait Foran.

Jenny Murphy-O'Neill of Vibe Salon created a series of time appropriate hair styles for the cast, while Kitty Warren was on make up with Mary Hennelly, Peggy Hussey and Ann Kissane in charge of costuming.

New Ross Standard