“Let’s try to show everyone that, recession or no recession, we are contented and happy – and this evening is going to be fun!” exclaims the hostess of the ill-fated book club in Abbey Theatre’s revival of Bernard Farrell’s Bookworms. As several reviewers commented on the play’s first outing in 2010, the comedy of manners was billed as a recession play, but the satire is never quite savage enough, and the characters seem anachronistically mired in Boom-time habits of consumption and competition with the neighbours over whose water feature is the biggest or whose gravel drive the most immaculate.
Two years on, the play’s depiction of comfortable middle-class denizens of south-side Dublin squeezing their eyes shut and pretending hard that the recession will soon be over is even more frustrating in its inability to look past the Dublin 4 postcode to the places where recession bites hardest. A director’s note queries, “Who knew a book club could represent so much of our society?” But of course, that is precisely what this book club does not represent—the dole queues, the closing hospitals and schools, the people not merely in danger of demotion or mortgage foreclosure, but of plunging below the poverty line.
As such, the play is less a satire of the Bust, and more of an embodiment of the magical thinking and denial pervading the political discourse of a country increasingly crushed by austerity measures. When vile Robert, played with maximum smarm by Louis Lovett, sneers, “Did we all enjoy the books or is there revolution in the air?” one could only wish that there were indeed revolution, rather than the tired knock-about of stereotypes and the organization of conflict around the clash of male and female readers, which displaces class for gender politics.
While the threat of imminent crucifixion that looms over the odious, amoral, promiscuous “alpha male” bank manager seems to play to the audience, who might warm to a banker being nailed to the floor, as critique of the banking crisis, it falls short, pandering to the myth of immoral individuals and the corrupt few as scapegoats, rather than addressing the systemic nature of the collapse. Robert is a pantomime villain, just as the mysterious Uncle Vincent (Michael Glenn Murphy) is full of pantomime rage, strikingly inauthentic in its excoriation of “impurity,” as if cognizant that it is addressed to a false target.
The cast, however, invest an infectious amount of energy and dynamism into their performances, which entertain despite the rather two-dimensional nature of the characters they play. In particular, Marion O’Dwyer imbues Ann with a brittle, anxious cheerfulness and eagerness to please—like the other characters, Ann is obsessed with keeping up appearances, but O’Dwyer’s performance renders her poignant in her bright-eyed desperation. Phelim Drew similarly humanizes her husband Larry, signalling his impotence and rising panic at the thought of his construction business’s collapse and the loss of his home. In a clever use of a flatscreen wall-mounted television, Liz Fitzgibbon’s spoiled gap-year backpacker Aisling skypes from offstage.
The production is staged impeccably, with a wittily appropriate set: a domestic interior of eggshell walls, tastefully patterned ‘feature’ wall and ambient light, prominently juxtaposed to a glassed-in conservatory with illuminated fountains and exotic plants (whose anxious tangle of shadows seems to symbolize the seething unconscious of the characters). Above the set of the house stretched a beautiful painted scrim of the iconic towers of Poolbeg pier, behind which lights change and darken as night falls over the course of the play. No image could be more apt, since after all, this is the recession as viewed from Sandymount.