A well lived in kitchen, with children’s toys and fairy lights under the table dominates the stage with a door either side; one leading to an unseen upstairs, another leading outside. This door is always closed. Soon two brothers enter the stage. Jacob is seventeen and tense. Lucas is ten, in blue pyjamas, red socks and smiling. It takes a moment to realise what is missing from the domestic scene. The brothers are alone. Their mother has been gone for years. Their father, a drinker left one night. They are waiting for him to return, which helps to explain Jacob’s tension. As the older of the two he has taken on the role of parent. He is helped by his friend Terry who is loud, brash and sweary. She also loves Jacob and Lucas and tries in her own way to help. Her character is a little exaggerated but she brings warmth and comedy to the play.
The audience enter the theatre to the sound of 90s music: The Spice Girls, Madonna, The Backstreet Boys. Although not everyone would admit to it there was a lot of singing along and heads bobbing. Music is an important part of this production. Lucas plays and bonds with Jacob and Terry through music. They sing out loud, dance, jump about the kitchen with abandon. It is fun and beautiful. Music and recordings also plays a pivotal role in relation to their parents. The support team have done fine work on the sound, costumes and setting which complements the actors and narrative movement at all times.
Jacob has struggled to keep their parent’s absence a secret. He works, gets Lucas to school and does his best to be the adult. However, when their mother turns up again how long will they be able to carry on? The relationship between Jacob, played by Stephen O’Leary, and Lucas, played by Finian Duff Lennon, is excellently portrayed and is the highlight of the play. As their life together is forced to adapt to change the audience waits to see whether they will be able to hold on to each other. Despite everything that Jacob has done Lucas still holds out hope of one day having a family. He likes fairy tales with happy endings and more than anything would love his own. There are moments in the play that are touching and heart breaking; that provoked tears. To be able to make an audience both laugh and cry is quite a skill.
The New Theatre champions new writing and has given this play the chance to develop and respond to criticism. Happy Birthday Jacob seems to have benefitted massively from this experience and the team have turned out a well-formed theatre experience. There are few other places that give writers and theatre makers the chance to premiere new work. Plays such as this are a testament to the theatres ethos and show why it is important for new writers to be nurtured and given the chance to put their ideas of the stage. This is a very strong debut from playwright Michael Marshall.
The past few years Dublin has seen a flourishing of small scale theatre productions that are tackling the big issues of the day. Social concerns such as homelessness, unemployment, masculinity, and violence are played out on stages above pubs, behind shops, and in old churches. If you want to see potentially challenging, difficult, socially conscious stories that reflect the lives of ordinary people who have been left behind by mainstream politics then head to the closest improvised, unconventional theatre space. By engaging with these issues playwrights are returning empathy and awareness to a society that is increasingly hostile to anything that fits outside of traditional norms.
Daniel Wade’s debut play The Collector opened to rave reviews and a full house at Dublin’s The New Theatre this January. It is striking for several reasons. The first being that it was first introduced to the public as a staged reading at the same theatre, and came to full production thanks to an online Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign.
The Collector opened in a dark, spare pool hall. The stage hummed with a darkness that belied the social issues burbling underneath. The stage was small—the actors stood within an arm’s length of the audience. The lights were set low and a large pool table set centre stage with a small desk and seat served as the set dressing.
Our protagonist Oren, is young and angry. Played in barnstorming fashion by Graeme Coughlan, Oren always knows how to find trouble. His bartender Uncle Des is more resigned to the way his life has turned out. Several years ago his son killed himself and in doing so killed a part of Des too. He lost his identity as a father and family man. Now Des works under the counter to supplement his benefits. The bar is a dangerous place frequented by gangland figures; staying open all night to serve the waifs and strays of the city. It is not the ideal place for anyone to find themselves but Des has few other options. Employment opportunities for his age group and skill set are thin on the ground and few workplaces are willing to give people time to recover from such a blow.
Suicide among young men, masculinity, and poverty are issues that are explored through this character driven narrative.
Oren’s life is thrown into chaos when he finds the body of his younger brother, Frank, who has also committed suicide. Frank was forlorn after a relationship with a visiting American male professor ended when he returned to America. To make matters worse, it seemed that everyone knew of Frank’s homosexuality except for Oren. To pay for Frank’s funeral, Oren borrows money and ends up in debt to a violent money collector.
Underlying all of this are different versions of masculinity. Oren’s violence and anger look helpless in this modern world and his new environment. He was unable to accept his brother for who he was and later finds himself unable to deal with his grief. Turning inwards he becomes increasingly aggressive, almost as if he wishes to destroy everything around him. Like everyone else he knows Oren has spent his life trying to get by, to make ends meet. Ultimately this is something he fails at. Unemployed, in debt and alone, his actions catch up with him one fateful night.
We in Ireland have been living in difficult financial times. With the economic crash of 2008 Ireland’s financial Celtic Tiger imploded and with it went the dreams and expectations that many had grown used to. Wade’s play resonates, as does the question it asks: What is it that makes a man a man? The traditional role of breadwinner is harder to fulfill in an economy fueled by low wages, casual contracts, continual reductions in welfare, and a greater number of potential workers than jobs. With the advantage firmly in the hands of employers it is harder for workers to assert their rights.
Although the two suicides are of characters that the audience never met they are the driving factor and catalyst for the events unfolding onstage. Suicide has barely been touched upon elsewhere on the Irish stage. This is very surprising when one considers the alarmingly high rate of suicide in Ireland’s men. According to the National Suicide Research Association in 2015 the number of female suicides per 100,000 people numbered three whereas the number of male suicides per 100,000 numbered sixteen. This is similar across Europe and North America. In the United States the average annual suicide rate is thirteen per 100,000 with men being three and a half times more likely to die in this manner than women. Characters like Des and Oren represent the many who are some of the most effected by the rollback of the state and reduction in funding for community and social services.
Ireland’s current bleak economic reality also serves as the backdrop for another recent small scale production produced by Purple Hare Theatre Company, that examines an important social issue. Taking place above a city centre pub at the improvised theatre space The International Bar, Mark Richardson’s Anonymous is about homelessness. It is about how men with jobs and families end up living on the streets. How they survive and how friendship and art can provide hope in even the darkest corners. One of the main characters, Sean, is a poet. This is something he largely keeps secret, writing his thoughts in his notebooks, the only items he has left that are his. Under Nathalie Clement’s able direction, we see how writing helps Sean to feel human and fill his endless days. It might also be his only way out of poverty.
The two central characters Sean and Dolan are both men who once lived in relative comfort until bereavement and unemployment tore their lives apart. No one wanted things to turn out the way that they did. Anonymous highlights how everyone is just a step or two away from losing everything. The staging echoes the narrative. Sean, played by Zeff Lawless, makes his home on the floor; alone, next to bags of garbage. When Lawless speaks though, the audience hears someone ostracised from society who they can also relate to. Richardson manages to bring empathy back into the conversation around homelessness.
Walking out of the play, I noticed people huddled in sleeping bags in shop doorways, and it was a startling reminder that homelessness is all around us. The play works to humanize people we might otherwise walk past, feet quickening, eyes averted. By introducing the audience to individuals who just happen to sleep on the streets the audience respond to their humanity and real human fears and hopes.
At the moment theatre productions such as The Collector and Anonymous are tackling important issues that affect the audiences’ everyday lives. As older, more traditional ideas of masculinity, of how to live and work are being challenged on all fronts, the theatre is serving as one stage where these issues can be worked through.
All That We Found Here opens in the living room of a mansion house. Everything in this room has been chosen for its style, for the image it projects to others, and for its price tag. Against the back wall are bookshelves full of hardback classic philosophy texts, an open fireplace, and a family portrait of a man seemingly standing proud, purveyor of all he sees. As the cast enters the sounds of dance music begins and the men, wearing pig masks dance energetically with the one female figure spinning into a frenzy in the centre of the stage.
This is how we met Sophia. She is the estranged daughter of an exiled property tycoon who has recently returned to the family home. Each weekend is spent partying with the young and wealthy of Dublin. Finding herself with a home and finance but without the presence or love of her parents, she questions the way in which we live. Is it better for one to strive for and claim whatever you want and leave others behind, or whether people should work together for the common good? It is a question that reverberates throughout the play but Humphreys’ script does not provide any easy answers. When a group of workmen arrive the action takes an unexpected turn and these theories of self-interest versus community are put to the test in a shocking and powerful way.
As each scene progresses the audience are left guessing what will happen next. All That We Found Here features stylised character interactions that use lighting and sound to reinforce the feeling of the moment. Under Sarah Bradley’s very capable direction each tonal shift is smooth and believable. Surprisingly this is Donagh Humphreys first full-length play. It is an exceptionally strong start to a career as a playwright. Each character is believable and the crisis points of the play manage to stay on the side of natural rather than overwrought. There is plenty of humour throughout before the play begins to cross the line into drama and tragedy. All That We Found Here is sure to continue packing out Dublin’s New Theatre.
“Sounds like you’ve got a bigger problem with living than with dying, pal.”
Welcome to the Dark Horse pool hall. On one long night secrets will out and debts must be repaid. Oren Collins is a small time thug, quick to anger and confrontation, always hanging around with dodgy characters and getting into trouble. After the death of his dear brother Frank things begin to spiral out of control. Joseph, Frank’s old American friend, is back in town and Oren stages an intervention with him in his Uncle’s pool hall. The three men discover a lot about themselves and each other in just a short space of time.
Daniel Wade’s new play is not shy of tackling the big issues, however it is also funny. The Dublin vernacular is captured perfectly with the slang and colloquialisms we are all used to hearing but rarely see bought to life on stage with such authenticity. The Collector covers themes of regret, masculinity, family and the weight that debt, both financial and personal, can have over a person. Set in a dingy and unwelcoming Dublin pool hall it is a powerful snapshot of a life lived always trying to catch up, to pay off debts owed.
Graeme Coughlan gives a stand-out performance as Oren Collins, a young man struggling to find his way in life. This is a difficult character for a young actor to take on and he pulls it off with aplomb. Coughlan was perhaps given the role with the most surprises involved, however, the rest of the cast all work as an ensemble that allows each other to play to their strengths. Kevin Brennan and Joseph Duggan are sinister and frightening as debt collectors, wielding words and crowbars with equal menace.
The play comes to a powerful and emotional climax. The stage falls to black and as the curtain closes it seems that there is only darkness ahead of our protagonist. Interestingly this play was one of many to be a part of the staged reading series at The New Theatre
and was partly funded by a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign. The Collector’s success helps to show how independent new Irish writing and theatre can flourish. A thrilling evening’s entertainment not to be missed.
To be an artist requires a certain type of self – belief and determination in order to keep getting back up after each rejection. As one continues along the same path those you started out with either fall away into different careers, searching for the stability offered by a steady pay check. Or, they begin to fly past you. Taking on lead roles, having their work published or displayed in galleries. When living in a world of near constant rejection how does one maintain the self – motivation needed to keep going?
This central difficulty of being an artist is explored in Paul Kennedy’s new play The Best Place for Love which opened tonight at Dublin’s The New Theatre to a sold out crowd. Anna, played by Sarah Allen Clarke, and Mick, played by Steve Gunn, are living together. They have become so comfortable, or so used to each other, that at times they are abrasive, on the verge of an explosive argument, before falling into each other’s arms. They recognise the same artistic struggle in each other. Anna has returned to the stage after a break of three years to face the challenge of committing herself to each character fully, before waiting to see if she has gotten the part. There is a certain powerlessness in her situation. This is something she shares with artist Mick. It is when he is holding out for a buyer, someone to inject some cash and much needed confidence into his endeavours that he meets Frank.
Frank, played by Pat McGrath, is a hurricane of a man. Big, loud and abrasive with a voice that booms, he takes up all the space around him. He is so certain of his intuition that he follows it no matter what. By doing this he has become something of a financial genius but has left havoc in his wake. Almost swallowed up by the storm around him is his wife Angela. Played by Susan Bracken, her belated entrance changes the tone and the audience are invited behind the scenes, illuminating the histories and beliefs that have bought the characters to where they now find themselves. Her final speech is impressive and energising.
The staging is kept relatively simple and unobtrusive. Spot lighting is used throughout to highlight key moments. The cast work well together, the tension and friendliness between them reaching into the audience. There are occasional moments where the actors seem to be speaking monologues directly to the audience, slightly apart from the others on stage. McGrath deserves special mention. His portrayal of Frank is a standout moment. McGrath’s Frank is recognisable and embodies much of the rise and fall of Ireland over the past decade.
The Best Place for Love is an engaging and surprising piece of theatre.
All Washed Up has opened for its debut at Dublin’s The New Theatre. The staging has been fully utilised. A bed sits on one side, a table and chest of drawers opposite. At the back a book case and basic kitchen set. This is where the barriers between rooms and people have fallen down and are all ‘washed up’ together in this small room. We learn early on that Alice, played by Romana Testasecca, likes to paint in her free time like her mother did. This art is not for the world though, only for herself. Once a piece of art, something beautiful, has been created, should it be preserved, or put aside to be held onto as a pure happy memory?
As the play begins it soon becomes clear that Alice and Fionn, played by Jamie Sykes, share the small flat and the bed. With her rather explosive entrance Kate, played by Karen Killeen, goes from judging the slightly unusual set up to becoming a part of it. Fionn offered her a place to stay because she was lost with nowhere else to go. This seems to be the case for all three of them. The promotional material includes this quote: “anyway, I only ended up here because I’d lost myself. Lost my context. I woke up one day and realised it was missing. Or hell, maybe I got rid of it myself. Flushed it down the toilet in a mad frenzy”. The trio use each other to hide from the rest of the world, each running away in some manner from either a memory or a person.
This is Rosebuds Theatre Company’s first production, having been recently founded by the three actors. They work well together and successfully show the closeness and claustrophobia that can be held between three people. Similarly they bounce off each other, playing games and bursting into childhood before the secrets and differences between them crack through the surface; suggesting that their lives together in this cocoon cannot be permanent. Over the course of an hour the audience see the three come together like a jigsaw before splintering apart, ready to face the world alone.
This is a very strong and commanding debut from Rosebuds Theatre Company that illustrates the best of the city’s new writing.
TIGER DUBLIN FRINGE FESTIVAL: Risk – The New Theatre, Dublin
Writer: Diane Crotty
“Risk is risk and consequences are consequences …”
RISK is a two handed drama thriller set in 1966 London. A crime family from Dublin have been forced to move and are making their new home in London. Join them as they prepare to set out their stall and take over.
However their plans are thrown into disarray when shortly after they arrive in London the father dies leaving his two daughters unprotected. Frances and Agnes are unwilling to be pushed aside or taken advantage of. It is time to come out fighting and the organised and powerful Frances will be the one taking control. However Agnes’ innocent look and soft words are misleading. She is a puzzler; she sees patterns and understands people in a way that both her father and now her sister rely on.
At first they take turns speaking before breaking into conversation. The language and action are fast paced in this enjoyable journey into the city’s underworld. It is perhaps unusual to see two women leading a crime empire however they pull it off with aplomb. With words alone and few props they succeed in creating a vivid picture of the life they are living and their personalities burst through. The use of two sisters as the main characters keeps things fresh and surprising. It is a well written and tight play from writer and director Diane Crotty who has managed to tap into an underused narrative vein.
Particular attention has been paid to the costumes. Agnes, the younger sister played by Susan Barrett, is dressed in a soft pink dress with plain silver heels. Her hair loose around her face. The effect is almost girlish and innocent. In comparison France, her older sister played by Lisa Tyrell, is far more pulled together. In sparkly silver heels, a fitted dress and her hair pinned up she looks professional and in control. Further although the set design is simple it is effective. One silver chair with black and pink upholstery next to one wooden stool. The pink and silver matching the actresses outfits. Their personalities and actions are reflected in their clothes.
This is a strong festival debut from Dublin based Whisky Tango Foxtrot theatre company and hopefully marks the beginning of a long relationship between the company and the Tiger Dublin Fringe Festival.
Runs until 24 September as part of the Tiger Dublin Fringe Festival | Image: Jass Foley