What happens to a family when a member departs? A dead matriarch lying in a coffin throughout Phillip McMahon’s perceptive new drama for the Abbey Theatre is at once grieved and jested at by her sons, as if barely concealing the jagged edges of a rocky childhood.
Michael (Billy Carter), an ex-seminarian living in London, has returned for the first time in almost 20 years. Ray (Ian Lloyd Anderson) and sister-in-law Aoife (Kathy Rose O’Brien) welcome him with open arms. Brian (Declan Conlon) and his wife Martina (Aishlín McGuckin), however, are less hospitable.
It isn’t lost on anyone why Michael left Ireland. Yet when, in Carter’s subtly despairing performance, he enquires about the local priest, his heartache is made invisible to everyone but us in director Rachel O’Riordan’s detailed production. Some people’s desire is still out of sight, out of mind.
At first McMahon’s play seems to be a painful confrontation with an unaccepting place. But when O’Brien’s sharp-witted Aoife almost sternly suggests that he visit home more often, there’s a sense of something more complex: the poisonous consequences of one man’s exile, and the abandonment felt by others. In the case of Lloyd Anderson’s Ray, teetering from alcoholism, the pressure of continuing their father’s barbershop has struck a blow to his confidence. Brian, in Conlon’s resolute performance, is stripped away to being the most deserted of the lot.
These anxieties around leaving are interesting, but they often lack a flow that feels natural. At one point Michael gives a rigorous account of how he met a man and moved to London, without any prompt. Indeed, individuals request reminisces from each other throughout, as if for no other reason than to flesh out their shared histories. It gives the impression of characters more closely resembling walking biographies, elicited without any compelling tension.
O’Riordan’s production works hard to make these moments of disconnect feel organic, but it struggles to contain the play’s more unrestrained aspects. Michael is reunited with his former lover – a priest moved to this parish to retain their connection. “I’m here to guide faith,” says Aidan (Seán O’Callaghan), who’s also implausibly guiding the plot.
There’s no way to place McGuckin’s grotesque and irreverent Martina other than Michael’s assurance: “The gays will love you.” (We do). But most confusing is everyone’s encouragement of Ray to leave, in a play dissecting the trauma of departure.
It’s a shame because there’s something really interesting about seeing the kind of freighted emigration narrative found in a Tom Murphy drama, but from a queer perspective.
Come on Home is on until 4 August 2018 at the Abbey Theatre. Click here to find out more.