Writer: Conall Quinn
Director: Alice Malin
Reviewer: Steve Barfield
It is always a pleasure to encounter a strong, distinctive and new theatrical voice. Conall Quinn is already getting noticed in his native Ireland as a young playwright and this play was produced there in 2010 to much acclaim. This British production should help cement his reputation as an important, emerging writer and one whose forthcoming plays should definitely be watched.
It is a surreal piece, glorying as much in its use of powerful, rich and lyrical language (so much a firm part of the Irish theatrical tradition), as in the very unexpected developments of plot and character that ensue in the strange situation depcited. At points the best way of describing it would be Father Ted meet Brian Friel, as its unlikely comedy is wrought from the essential loneliness and sadness of the two main characters and their situation, and its absurdity is squeezed with rigorous logic from a nub of despair and desperation in the tradition of Samuel Beckett.
There is some excellent acting throughout and some rather graceful, well-conceived direction in the intimate space of the White Bear’s stage by Alice Malin. This is augmented by Ruth Hall’s evocative design which conjures up the beach setting with its hut, palisade fence, draped parachute silk and an equally striking soundscape created by Max Pappenheim of waves lapping, and the cries (or as the plays calls them ‘the laughs’) of seagulls. There is nothing to detract from the power of the acting or the words being spoken, but much which adds a necessary tone of realism to the proceedings, especially important in a play where fantasy is so important but which has a strong if ambiguous relation to reality.
The setting is Clogherhead Beach, County Louth, which is on the East coast of Ireland, not far from the border with the North/ Northern Ireland and located on the wild Irish Sea. The play catches the oddity of Ireland during World War Two, when Ireland stayed officially neutral (it was called with rather dead-pan humour by the government, ‘the emergency’ ), yet did what it could to help the Allies on the sly. Of course men from both sides of the border travelled to fight for the Allies and against Fascism, sometimes taking considerable risks to do so, something which Ireland has found difficult to come to terms with. If Samuel Beckett was the greatest Irish writer of the period, many forget he not only fought with the French resistance at considerable personal risk (being awarded the Croix de Guerre), but was by no alone in a certain distaste for Ireland’s complex and official policy of neutrality.
If the Irish coast was scattered with lookouts in case of an invasion (as the play suggests, they weren’t sure whether it might be by the British or the Germans), none could be stranger than Henry. Gregory Finnegan in something of a tour-de-force, creates a melancholic, alcoholic, child-like loner, with sturm und drang dramatic tendencies balancing his shy eccentricity. Henry makes tea with sea-water and scribbles away about the ghost of his dead father in his official reports, as well as occasionally firing off his flare-gun at shooting stars. At one point in trying to attract the girl he is in love by firing a flare, he almost sets her on fire. However, he is saving for a planned emigration to America by helping Edward pick the pockets of drowned airman, most of whom seem to be American fighter pilots based in the North.
Henry is managed by Damien Tracey’s Edward: a wonderfully arch and satirical portrait of a fervently-nationalistic, petty-minded, Latin-spouting (an ironic nod to Friel’s Translations perhaps?), and mean-spirited Catholic Irish petit-bourgeois of the period. He gives a couple of voluntary days a month to help Henry, because he says he is a patriot, but when not moaning about the Protestants being more successful, he both defrauds Henry of his share of the picked-pockets, while also despairing of the problems Henry causes him with officialdom. Then there is Clare Fraenkel’s memorable Alice, a wide-eyed dreamer and perhaps borderline personality disorder case, who is looking for romance and freedom and who runs away from home, even though she is the only person living there. She falls in love with one of the deceased American airman, Eugene F. Dumas, and proceeds to dig him up and then push him round in a wheel barrow.
Such is the potency and magic of Alice’s fantasy that Paul Hayward’s Dumas becomes resurrected ( he isn’t alone, there is also an American sailor who thought he died when his ship was torpedoed – perhaps he did), and Alice and Dumas fall in love. They proceed to behave like any other couple, Duams staying up too late drinking with Henry in this very peculiar ménage à trois. though every so often he seems to collapse back into death and needs to be returned to his barrow. Both Henry and Edward seem to accept these sudden resurrections and the play has many odd turns in the second half before it moves to its equally unexpected ending. While the quality of acting, the sparking and clever dialogue, and the interplay between characters suggests this is more than just light-hearted whimsy, or an anodyne homage to the surrealist’s interests in death, I was left feeling somewhat unmoved by the end when compared to the despair and loneliness that play seemed to originally refer to. Was this anymore, than a gentle satire on the pretensions, shallowness and sexual repression of De Valera’s Irish state and the myth of a noble, civilised Ireland in World War II?