The Last Corner Shop on Misery Hill

Walking in to the Boys School at Smock Alley feels just like walking into The Last Corner Shop on Misery Hill. Run by chalk and cheese brothers Mick and Joe O’Reilly they spend their days obsessing over missing money and missing socks. They are trying to withstand the tide of supermarkets and online shopping without much success. The staging has been excellently and carefully designed to look like all corner shops; nostalgia and curiosity jumbled together. A second glance at the very unusual selection of items on offer gives the audience a clue as to why this is misery hill; eggs for 8 euro next to 100 euro for a used, plain white T – shirt that was once worn by an under 21 footballer. Unsurprisingly the shoppers are not flocking to their store. The brothers are joined by friends Deana and Johno as they stagger through their day finding humour where they cannot find money. In their current situation, how long before they have to give in to their arch enemy: Dunnes (try and imagine the name Dunnes uttered in an over the top panto voice to signal doom and the enemy). How is a corner shop to survive in the modern world?

Joe (Barry John Kinsella) likes to start the day with his tunes. It sets him off on the right note as he dances around the shop with a broom. It’s a fun start to the day. George Benison’s Give Me The Night is bouncy and infectious. It sets the pace and at first the play kept up; with comedy wrapped around sharp social observations. The was developed upon by the introduction of Deana (Eimear Keating). A firecracker of a character full of energy and bite, it is difficult to see why she stays friends with them but her presence on stage is full of entertainment. Then, in walks Johno (Colm Lennon). A down and out he is a friend of sorts. The kind that you are stuck with from childhood and never manage to separate yourself from. He is prone to exaggeration and flights of fancy that are used to (ever diminishing) comedic effect.

Most of the play felt a bit grimy. Johno started off being funny, but his speeches continued to the point of almost pain. At the end there is a sudden emotional revelation. I say sudden because it came from absolutely nowhere, no lead up at all. There were moments earlier in the play that were supposed to act as breadcrumbs, but they were not fully formed enough to pave the way for the ending. The audience were left looking around wondering what had happened. There is much else throughout the play that goes unanswered. Story lines and plot points are started and then forgotten about. There is one plotline that dovetails through the production well. That of the mad old bat of a customer Mary (Denise O’Connor). Her transformation at the end fits and her explanation for the absurdity going on makes sense in the context of misery hill. If the final scene with Johno, can be worked back to flow so well from beginning to end then the script will soon come up to the great standard of acting on display. Keating had a particularly great roll to get into. Comedy, brutality, the voice of reason and justice all rolled into one, she without doubt had some of the most entertaining and enjoyable scenes. Lennon plays the part of homeless raconteur well and brings out the best in the others, including Kinsella’s Joe. And of course, none of this would work without the ‘straight’ man of the group, Owen O’Gorman’s long suffering older brother Mick, who acts as an excellent foil for the others and provides the anchor around which the production revolves.

There is a strain of Irish comedy that is very black, and this is an example of a production that veers too much away from comedy and into the black. The last few scenes in The Last Corner Shop have a brilliant twist and are surreal and wonderfully done. The Last Corner Shop is rough, rude and a little too long. It has the bones of a great play here, with key plot points, characters and vignettes. The middle needs to be worked on and the main through points sharpened so the audience can get involved with the action unfolding around them. Hopefully Last Corner Shop will be revisited in the future and buffed up into a diamond.

Set-Design1-1

Director: Mack Mirahmadi

Writer: Ciaran Gallagher & Mack Mirahmadi

Cast: Barry John Kinsella, Colm Lennon, Denise O’Connor, Eimear Keating, Owen O’Gorman

N.B. Interesting fact: there used to be a misery hill in Dublin 1.

N.B. Happy fact: I went home singing Benison’s Give Me The Night but was going mad when I couldn’t remember the name of the song or find it on youtube. Polliwog Theatre Company kindly responded to my facebook message and told me the name of the song.

From July 2019.

Being Various: New Irish Short Stories, edited by Lucy Caldwell

First Written for Shiny New Books

 

Ireland is going through a golden age of writing: that has never been more apparent. I wanted to capture something of the energy of this explosion, in all its variousness… [Lucy Caldwell]

When picking up a collection of short stories, many will choose to do the same as I did and seek out their favourite writers. This is how I came to read Jan Carson’s Pillars first. Carson, a writer from Northern Ireland, has been fusing magical realism with day to day life to great success in her early works and is well known for her short stories. So, it was with anticipation that I started to read. Pillars focuses on 47 year old Louise. “On Monday she simply wakes to find the pillar floating at the end of her bed.” This is most unusual because she hasn’t ordered one. It will go on to stay with her day and night, changing colour and size as the situation demands. Carson uses this to take a piercing look a mental health, or more specifically the way in which we often try to ignore difficulties and do not know how to acknowledge them in others. It is a gentle and ultimately uplifting story that makes one question why we so often refuse to accept the obvious.

Being Various is the sixth volume in Faber’s long running series of new Irish short stories. It has been brought together under the editorship of accomplished short story writer Lucy Caldwell (although she does not offer up a story which is perhaps a shame). She commissioned new works from a variety of writers, ranging from the well-established to relative newcomers. The nature of what it means to be an Irish writer is tackled head on with the introduction stating that each writer is “Irish by birth, by parentage, or residence”. “Irish” referring to the island of Ireland. Further, each writer had their first work published after the Good Friday Agreement. This makes Being Various a particularly diverse and interesting volume but also helps to highlight some of the great talent that has been emerging from Northern Ireland in the past two decades.

Wings, by David Hayden, a story of a family ruled by the unpredictable violence of the father, is spare, darkly beautiful and devastating. It’s told from the perspective of a young boy, Martin, whose every footstep is tightly controlled and monitored. Every moment is full of fear; “there was no knowing. Everything was quiet” until the “thumping on the stairs”. Hayden avoids falling into the trap of making Wings sound too much like a misery memoir or list of abuses, with his delicate prose and way of zooming out at times of horror – as our protagonist does also – making the wrongness of the situation all the more apparent. As the story comes to a close Hayden subverts expectations with the last few paragraphs which are a strange mix of terrifying and beautiful. Wings echoes in the reader’s mind long after turning the page.

“I saw you. I saw you. I got you by the shirt. I stopped you walking into the road.” Eimear McBride best known for her award winning A Girl Is a Half Formed Thing, offers up The Adminicle Exists. This is a particularly interesting piece as it chronicles the journey of a woman taking her partner to hospital as he experiences a mental health crisis. Her role is fixed as his partner and protector, so much so that her real thoughts are trapped inside and no one notices her pain. The writing is broken across the page, in short sharp sentences and split in two halves, reflecting the way in which the protagonist’s life, and mind, has splintered. This somehow strengthens its impact and one finds oneself turning back to the start to begin again (as indeed does our protagonist as she knows this event will be repeated). An ‘adminicle’ is defined as ‘corroborative or explanatory proof’, and as the title tells us this proof exists. But the question becomes can others see it as she sometimes screams, sometimes whispers inside, “I wonder if you’ll kill me tonight?”.

Sally Rooney has shot to international acclaim with her first two novels, but before this she was making a name for herself as a short story writer, with Mr Salary (2016) being shortlisted for the Sunday Times EFG short story award. Her offering here is called Colour and Light. Aidan is being picked up by his brother when he first meets Pauline. She is enigmatic, worldly and always slightly out of reach. In town for an arts festival she keeps running into Aidan and her brother; each time making him wonder more about who she is. Although little in the way of action happens as these two cross paths, Colour and Light shows how close we can be to someone – a brother or partner – and yet also not really know them at all. One also gets the impression of emotional sadness running through Pauline which is highlighted by Rooney’s pared back and emotionally acute writing style. Unsurprisingly as the story ended, I found myself wanting to know more about the characters and inventing further backstory for them in my head.

So how does Being Various fit together as a collection? Although impossible to sum up and evaluate each of the twenty four stories in a short review, it is pleasant to be able to dip in and out of a collection and find oneself confronted with skill and intrigue on each page. Although identity is a political hot topic, as touched upon in the introduction, remarkably few writers choose to directly investigate national identity here. Instead this is more done by the very inclusion of such a diverse group of writers. I hope the selection of stories mentioned above give a good idea of the power of each story and how enjoyable this collection is to read. If one wants to start at page one and read each story in order, the collection flows well and has been edited to fit together well. There is a good mix of light and darkness (thankfully, as Irish art has a well-deserved reputation for darkness, there are rays of light radiating through) and each story offers something new and exciting.

Lucy Caldwell (ed.), Being Various: New Irish Short Stories (Faber and Faber, 2019). 978-0571342501, 354pp., paperback.

How Tootsie Rolls Saved US Marines In The Korean War

First Written for Headstuff

Tootsie Rolls are bite-size chocolate covered toffee treats. Those not from America may be familiar with the name from the 90s dance craze. These unassuming sweets have an interesting history, specifically the role they played in the Korean War, when they were credited with saving the lives of American Marines.

So how did this strange happening occur?

By November 1950 the Korean war was well underway when the People’s Volunteer Army of China entered the conflict. Coming via the north-eastern Chinese-Korean border on 27th of November, this development took US forces by surprise.

US Marines, under the command of General Edward Almond, were based in the Chosin Resevoir Area. Accompanied by UN troops, the total number of allied troops was approximately 30,000. They were soon surrounded and outnumbered by 120,000 Chinese soldiers, under the command of Song Shilu. The UN troops broke free and withdrew to Hungnam, inflicting heavy casualties on the more numerous but less well equipped and trained Chinese. This left the US Marines who were facing freezing temperatures and rough terrain as they sought to make their escape.

As the temperature hit -38°C the ground froze, roads became iced over, and crucially technology and weapons began to malfunction in these extreme temperatures. One side effect of this was that the tank fuel pipes froze over, cracking open in some places; making the US’s position more perilous. At the same time, they ran low on mortar rounds. With the situation looking dire they made a request for more mortar shells. A wait ensued as anti-aircraft equipment had been entrenched on the enemy side.

It was common at the time to use code words when making requests. Mortar rounds were code named ‘Tootsie Rolls’. After the request went through the troops waited until the US were able to make air drops. It was then that they found… Tootsie Rolls.

Actual Tootsie Roll sweets. And not the much sought-after mortar rounds.

This should have been a disaster, but some quick thinking and ingenuity saved the day. The tootsie rolls were solid lumps of chocolate toffee when they landed. The Marines soon discovered that they would melt in the mouth. If they were careful, they could soften up the sweets and put them to good use. Turning them into a sort of putty the softened tootsie rolls were then applied to the fuel pipes; acting as a seal. Surprisingly, this worked. It was so cold that the sweets then solidified around the pipes, resealing them.

With the tanks up and running again the Marines were able to attempt their escape. They took heavy causalities but made it out of the Chosin River Area. Those that survived, in part thanks to Tootsie Rolls, nicknamed themselves ‘The Chosin Few’.

This was not the first time that tootsie rolls had proved useful. They played a small part in the Second World War too. They were included in ration packs as a durable treat that would withstand all weather traditions. A fitting use for an all-American sweet.

Tootsie Rolls | HeadStuff.org
Lt. Gen. Richard E. Carey USMC with Tootsie Roll CEO Ellen Gordon

 

Public Displays of Emotion by Roisin Ingle

This is Ingle’s second collection of articles and it makes the reader yearn after the time she wrote a weekly column for the Irish Times. A life lived with her nerve endings on the outside, Ingle feels and experiences everything around her and time has given her the ability to turn the everyday into something profound. I intended to only dip in and out but ending up reading from start to finish without a break. A particular favourite was her talking about how she met her partner. In the middle of a riot during marching season our intrepid reporter found herself applying lipstick and creating reasons to spend more time with this handsome man. This is typical of the beautiful, surprising and endearing life chapters that Ingle chooses to share with her readers. It doesn’t take long before we feel like we are on first name terms with Roisin and I defy any reader not to find themselves looking up when they pass The Times building to see if they can spot her. Exuding warmth and the beauty of the everyday Public Displays of Emotion shows growth from her last collection and displays her mastery of the language of feeling. With such a great talent for living her life in words we can only hope she will resurrect her weekly column.

roisin ingle pde

Public Displays of Affection, Roisin Ingle, Irish Times Ltd, 10th Sept 2015. Paperback. 279 pages. ISBN-10: 0907011470.

 

Charlie Savage by Roddy Doyle

First Written for Shiny New Books

 

One of the kids wants a tattoo.

-He’s only three, I tell the wife.

-I’m aware of that, she tells me back. -But he still wants one.

-He can’t even say ‘tattoo’, I tell her.

-I know, she says. -It’s sweet.

Charlie Savage is not a fan of tattoos. He is utterly bewildered when his grandson decides he wants one for Christmas. What sort of Christmas present is that? However, the reader quickly learns what sort of person, what sort of family man Charlie is. He is very much the opposite of his surname. What if he gets the tattoo instead? And then the grandson can see it and visit it whenever he wants. Charlie will even go around at night so he can say goodnight to it? It is with this flash of brilliance, that Charlie ends up having Spongebob Square Pants tattoo’d on his chest. Even though he hates tattoos.

Doyle must by now be a national treasure. He is one of Ireland’s most loved writers ever since The Commitments. With the freedom to write what he pleases it is perhaps a little surprising, that he has decided to start writing a weekly column for a national newspaper. Unlike most however, he has eschewed the typical opinion pieces and gone instead for creating a new character, and with him a new family. 2017 began with Charlie Savage’s introduction to the Irish public in the pages of the Independent. How I missed this I don’t know. But fortunately, a book has been issued, bringing together 52 weeks worth of columns into one collection. As each instalment follows on from the other Charlie Savage can squeeze into the category of novel or it can be read one chapter at a time. With each instalment readers get to peek inside the head of Charlie, and in a way, he is a barometer for what is going on in the wider world.

In one of the collection’s few more serious moments, Charlie contemplates the world he is leaving for his grandchildren.

But the news – terrorist attacks, famines, disasters, intolerance – it’s relentlessly dreadful. Even the good murder stories have become too gruesome for me. Our parents left the world in reasonably good shape but I’ve a horrible feeling we’ll be leaving it in rag order.

Unfortunately, he is probably right. However, this is offset when we learn that he has also found a positive to Trump being President of the USA. He has found the secret. Deny everything and front it out. Even if no one else believes you just keep saying it is fake news until it becomes something resembling a truth. One gets the feeling that either he or his wife could find the silver lining in the black clouds of a thunderstorm. Charlie’s wife has been searching for something to do. Book clubs and baby sitting just aren’t enough. One night in bed she discusses this with Charlie:

-Old age can fuck right off. Am I right?

-Bang on

Shortly afterwards, she embarks on her own musical adventure with a fury and energy that makes Charlie’s heart fill with pride. Even from the short quotes one can see the Dublin vernacular and humour that Doyle is famous for embracing, that makes the comedy, even in the dark, spring from the page.

What gobshite decided that serving tea in a glass was a good idea? I’m not sure if there are any references to tea in the Bible but I’m betting that Jesus and the lads had theirs in mugs. And his holy mother – with a name like Mary she definitely drank hers from a cup and she went down to the Irish shop in Nazareth for the milk. And a packet of Tayto for Joseph – salt and vinegar.

The highlight of the collection is the way in which Charlie’s love for his family seeps through the pages and into the reader. The prose is at its most potent when Charlie talks about his loved ones (although to be clear, match of the day comes a close second). The way Charlie’s love shows for his family – even when he is bewildered, exasperated and hoping for a pint – make Charlie Savage more than a novelty and add a depth and resonance that warms the reader.

 I feel like an animal and I know I’d do anything to protect them. I’d bite, I’d maim and I’d kill – I’d even miss Match of the Day for the kids and grandkids. I think of  them and I know I have a heart, because I can feel it pumping, keeping me alive for them.

There is a real tenderness at the heart of this collection. It was this that made me recommend Charlie Savage to several others. It’s not easy to find a laugh out loud book that also makes one feel content, making this a rare gem. Reading Charlie Savage felt a little like walking hand in hand with him along Dollymount Strand in the autumn breeze.

Roddy Doyle, Charlie Savage, (Jonathan Cape, 2019). 978-178733118, 208pp., hardback.

Kate Crackernuts

Kate Crackernuts, Smock Alley Theatre – Dublin

Writer: Sheila Callaghan

Director: Kate Cosgrave

 

Presented by No Drama Sheila Callaghan has rewritten the Scottish fairy tale, taking it from late nineteenth century Scotland to something with a decidedly more modern sensibility.

As with most good fairy tales’ beauty, jealously and unpleasant step parents set the action moving. Anne is the beautiful daughter of a king. His wife had a daughter called Kate – far less pretty but full of love for her sister. Unfortunately, the queen didn’t feel the same way. She placed an enchantment on Anne, turning her head into that of a sheep. This is an unusual turn of events but jealousy in fairy tales has a way of resulting in these things. Kate, furious at what had happened, wrapped Anne’s head in a green cloth, and set out to ‘fix’ her. Little did she know that it wasn’t just Anne’s life that had been changed that day. Her own future was on a new path. In practice this resulted in a philosophical sheep who feared he had lost his head (not a surprising fear given the context), an ailing moon of a boy / man called Paul who comes to life under disco lights but has lost the ability for words, an enchantress with a fondness for dead crows and much more besides.

The yearning to be needed runs throughout the production and manifests in painful, ugly, recognisable ways. It is possible to interrogate the text for a feminist reading of the nature of women in relationships and how they have been cultured into valuing beauty and being needed. It is when dancing, sickly, addicted Paul says he needs Kate, that she feels emotion pooling in her thighs, and knows that she will mind him in return for his need. The original tale ends with two marriages; two happy ever afters. In Callaghan’s version both sisters find themselves in the position of trying to change themselves, put themselves second, in order to keep the interest of the men they love. The fast pace and heightened humour ensures the action keeps moving and it is not until afterwards that one takes a moments to realise that, as Kate briefly said, all may not be well. It is a twist on the idea of a happy ending that leaves the audience both satisfied and with a small ball of uncertainty; the knowing that happily ever afters do not exist.

There was a great moment of heightened comedy near the end when everything fell into place in a self knowingly absurdist way that had the audience howling with laughter. The second half played better than the first; smoother, faster, more action and comedy. The text incorporates poetry throughout, some lines of which works better than others. The poetry Kate uses to talk about her newfound loved for the Paul, is particularly lovely and the sheep (go with it) summing up at the end, had some great lines; particularly when he reminded us all that we are always beginning and went on to liken marriage to a cotton thread of misery unravelling forward.

Kate Crackernuts takes place in the Main Stage of Smock Alley and there were a few issues with the staging. One wonders if it would have been better in the Boys School – using the old church windows to show Paul’s dancing sickness while Kate continues on her quest below. In the future it might be a good idea to rope off the side seating areas to keep the audience front and centre. From the reaction of the audience it became clear that there were things – physical comedy, gestures – that those at the sides missed out on. This was perhaps also a side effect of keeping most of the action in the centre and front of the stage and using the back to store props until needed. There were frequent scene changes that required different staging, meaning that set pieces were regularly being moved around while the action continued. Cosgrave dealt with this by integrating it into the show. Having two actors, dressed in white and pvc tutus dance and leap across the stage and at one point even interact with the cast. Although this was a good idea work needs to be done to make the transitions smoother in the future.

Kate Crackernuts was an interesting choice for No Drama, who are, in theory at least, an amateur dramatics group. I say in theory because their last production at Smock Alley, Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, easily stood its ground next to ‘professional’ productions. Kate Crackernuts is a challenging piece to stage and it is impressive that they decided to take this one. No Drama certainly haven’t made it easy for themselves. There were some bumps in the production but overall Kate Crackernuts is a modern retelling of an old story; told with enthusiasm, humour and a large dash of absurdity. A philosophical comedy unlike anything you have ever seen on the Smock Alley stage before.

Runs Until 13th July 2019.

 

kate crackernuts

Sure, Look It, Fuck It

First Written for The Reviews Hub

Sure Look It, Fuck It – Project Arts Centre, Dublin

Writer: Clare Dunne

Director: Tom Creed

I’m afraid to admit I’m tired of roaming / But it feels a weird kinda good to be home”

When life doesn’t seem to be going anywhere and you find yourself living back in your childhood bedroom what can you do? Well, if you’re Missy, you draw on your eyebrows, get dressed up and go out and tackle the world. And if things don’t seem to be falling into place? Sure, look it, you can always say “Fuck it.”

Expectations weigh heavily on Missy (Clare Dunne). From the riotous, hugely successful stories people expect her to have come home with, to the constant fear of missing out that weaves through each day, she doesn’t quite know who she is or what she should be doing. Taking an alternative look at the life of an Irish emigrant, Sure Look It, Fuck It, is slightly unusual in that it looks at the experience of a returning emigrant. There is wealth of stories and theatre to be drawn out of looking at those who go away but find their way back again. Of those who, like Missy, spent six years in Brooklyn and come back with life experience but no money and a blank CV to find they have been priced out of Dublin and cannot barter their experience into paid employment or a new place to live.

The story is told in rhyme which adds bounce to each line and draws on the long history of Irish poetry to enhance the narrative and pull the audience into each step the character takes. However, Missy’s strong Dublin accent, not softened by her years away, combined with the rhyme scheme means that those unfamiliar with the accent have to concentrate hard throughout. Dunne has the audience involved in the off by asking them to finish off her old Dublin mantra by shouting out the last two words where appropriate.

Lighting designer Sarah Jane Shiels has great timing; ensuring the lights fill up the auditorium every time the audience shout out. Billowing smoke, high energy songs and a bright outfit choice round off the production. From the front rows, the lights being switched up felt a little much but may have had more impact for those sat further back. Dunne walks up and down the stage but has little to do with the back two thirds, making one wonder whether Sure Look It, Fuck It would do well in the future on a slightly smaller, more intimate stage.

This is the first full showing on Dunne’s work and it is clearly her own. The time spent developing Sure Look It, Fuck It was well spent; turning the story of an average woman into something that is both relatable and a tiny bit magical. Dunne positively fizzes and pops with energy from beginning to end. She gives each song, each rhyming couplet her all. Complemented by Ailbhe Dunne of Mongoose (last seen in Woman Undone on the same stage) on the guitar every time she sings Dunne takes off, filling the stage with her great voice and presence. With energy and an insight into what it is like to be lost in modern Ireland; it is impossible not to enjoy the vim and brio that she bought to the stage.

Image: Contributed