Writer: Fiona Doyle
Director: David Mercatali
Reviewer: Alex Ramon
Following the Finborough’s superb production of Angelina Weld Grimké’s Rachel, Fiona Doyle’s Coolatully now débuts at the theatre having scooped this year’s Papatango New Writing Prize, an award that’s previously gone to such well-received works as Dawn King’s Foxcatcher (2011) and, last year, Luke Owen’s chilly, understated sex abuse drama Unscorched.
Doyle’s play unfolds in the fictional village of the title, a small town on the southwest coast of Ireland. Kilian Dempsey was once the star of the town: a hurling champion with a bright future ahead of him. But times have changed in Coolatully, with many of the town’s young people having emigrated due to lack of employment opportunities, and Kilian himself now working fairly disconsolately in his mother’s far-from-buzzing pub. He’s encouraged to leave by Jimmy, the elderly friend he visits, and by Eilish, a nurse who herself is eagerly anticipating a new life in Australia. But Coolatully, it seems, has something of a hold on Kilian, one connected to both the glories and the tragedies of the past.
To stay or not to stay: it’s a timeless (or timeworn) dramatic dilemma, uniting texts from Three Sisters to Waiting for Godot. But Doyle’s play can’t be said to add much that’s fresh or insightful to that lineage, unfortunately. The posited parallel between 19th century Irish migration history and a present-day period which has apparently seen the country experience levels of emigration unparalleled in Europe is certainly interesting. But the promising premise isn’t developed as successfully as it might have been, with the play getting hung up on a crime element that sadly fails to convince. There are also some odd aspects to the construction of the piece: in particular, the decision to keep off-stage the character of Kilian’s mother seems bizarrely counterproductive, given that she’s presented as one of the primary reasons for the protagonist’s uncertainty about leaving the town.
David Mercatali’s production can’t be said to conceal the writing’s weaknesses; indeed, in some cases it exacerbates them, with folk songs in the scene changes over-egging the already heavy-handed Oirishness (the plethora of “feckin’ eejits” in the dialogue takes the piece perilously close to Mrs. Brown’s Boys territory at times). The set-up of Max Dorey’s design, which places the audience on three sides of the action, makes the playing space seem even more miniscule than normal: this may be an attempt to convey small-town claustrophobia but it leads to some cramped staging and awkward transitions that only Christopher Nairne’s excellent lighting helps to redeem.
The performances from Kerr Logan as Kilian, Eric Richard as Jimmy, Yolanda Kettle as Eilish and Charlie de Bromhead as Kilian’s pal Paudie (fresh from jail and boasting an “affinity with Nelson Mandela” are all solid), with Logan and de Bromhead, in particular, developing a believable, tart yet affectionate rapport. But the actors’ best efforts can’t always overcome the contrivances of some of the plotting here.
At its strongest Doyle’s writing does demonstrate a flair for detail, and the playwright’s focus on the everyday challenges of “ordinary” characters is admirable. But overall it’s difficult to believe that this year’s Papatango Prize didn’t yield stronger submissions than this.
Runs until 22nd November.