The ritual of tea-making plays a large part in Irish playwright Deirdre Kinhan’s tense drama. In moments of familial crisis, people reach for the kettle. The tea doesn’t always get drunk, the stuff in the cup is almost secondary, but it’s the act of making it that matters, the sense of purpose provided, the long wait for the kettle to sing.
Kinahan’s play illustrates how one awful act, one unreclaimable moment of violence, can shatter a family, can have consequences that bleed through the years. Around fifteen years ago, while still a teenager, Nial Lynch committed a crime, he killed someone. He’s paid for it; he’s served his time, and after his release he was able to go and live in London where he became a successful artist. His sisters, however, Niamh and Ciara, stayed behind, left with the mess, with a father who would die young from the stress and a mother who pops pills like sweets in an effort to shut out the past. They were left to face the reproachful stares of the neighbours and to tend to their damaged parents.
Now Nial is coming home for a visit. Recently married, his English bride Ruth wants to meet her new family. She’s been told about Nial’s background but it’s clear she doesn’t fully understand the consequences, not completely, and over the course of one exquisitely tense meal, the full impact of Nial’s act comes flooding up.
Kinahan roots their story in the everyday, in the domestic and familiar, in cups of tea and plates of quiche, in shop-bought potato salad. Though an evident tension between mother and daughters is there from the beginning, she takes her time in exploring it, exposing it. The mother’s weakness and dependence, and the way she uses it to subtly control them, only gradually becomes apparent.
Maybe because of its size the Bush does gripping kitchen scenes very well. There are echoes of Alexi Kaye Campbell’s Apologia, also staged in this space, in this pivotal meal, in the way the kitchen table becomes a site of familial dissection, with all their old wounds opened up. The second half of David Horan’s production never quite matches the momentum of the first and the play too becomes a blunter instrument, dabbling in flashback.
Maeve Fitzgerald and Kate Nic Chonaonaigh are both compelling as the Lynch sisters. Fitzgerald is brittle and tightly wound, forever on the brink of exasperation and outburst; her face tells of the effort required in not speaking and occasionally, inevitably, she erupts. Chonaonaigh is far calmer, playing someone long accustomed to steadying the boat. Yet she too carries a weight around her neck and ultimately needs to unburden herself. Ronan Leahy is more impenetrable as Nial, There is anger there but also frustration and the sense that he still doesn’t fully grasp either why he did what he did or the full implications of his actions.
There’s something almost serene in the way Deirdre Donnelly plays their mother Teresa. She’s a passive woman, but one capable of calculation, a woman who has developed strategies to ensure her own survival in the face of all that’s happened. Kinahan makes it clear that she already played upon her fragility even before the incident and this tactic has become her crutch, a vital part of who she is.
Kinhan is not afraid to tap the situation for comedy, using the characters of the two men in the sisters’ lives, Dave and Fin, to balance the emotional see-saw and provide some necessary levity. Only Ruth, the new bride, the interloper, never really rings true as a character in her reactions and expectations, she’s a tool, a catalyst. The production is well-paced, especially in its first half, and Kinahan sculpts events with elegance, adding characters, building to a pitch, and then allowing events to fade, to dissipate, as the family scatters once more and Niamh is left alone in a dark Dublin kitchen with her memories.