Who would think that the debut play by Kevin Barry, a novelist who often draws a savage vision of Ireland, would begin with a note as benign as an apology?
“I take it back,” says May (Siobhán McSweeney), clearly sincere. Her brother Timmy (Shane Casey) immediately accepts it and they begin. Their lives, however, slyly hinted at by Deirdre Dwyer’s fantastic and absurdist kitchen set stacked with washing machines, are in a cycle. We’re here, and we’ll be at this exact point again.
Barry’s dark comedy for the Everyman Theatre, written both as acidic dialogue and vivid monologues, looks at a depressed reality. Thirty-something May and Timmy are carers for their bedridden and agitated father. Life’s banal routine is made brutally clear in director Caitriona McLaughlin’s rigorous staging: drop a teabag into a cup, cut crust off a sandwich, repeat.
May, dutiful yet resentful, casts her mind back to a joyless childhood episode sitting in a church pew. “Other kids got to go to the bumpers!” she wails. Timmy’s mind goes in the other direction, looking to a future where he’ll live happily in Australia. Neither is fully capable of escaping the present.
The decision to admit their father to a nursing home, Autumn Royal, is not made without reservation (“Those places aren’t for them. They’re for us,” seethes Timmy). Barry’s characters, if not destined to spend decades more with their difficult parent, are to spend their lives haunted by their actions. Nothing changes. Drop a teabag into a cup, cut crust off a sandwich, repeat.
Perhaps the uneasy spectre of their mother can explain this. Summoned through painful reminiscence, we glimpse a woman easily scared off by her husband’s degenerating mind. May and Timmy, receivers of an immense responsibility, might be trying not to repeat her mistake. Regardless, the play is fascinated by the acceptance of unfulfilled lives. Think Beckett but with more of an Irish vernacular. “It’s slipping away alright,” delights a woozy May, “It’ll be done in a spit of time”.
But Barry’s own strength has always been depicting the barbarism of ordinary life, suspecting that the only thing worse than living badly is being perceived as such. “Poor May!” cries McSweeney, imitating May’s neighbours and giving the production its last gut punch. The gorgeous performance of this cast brings the play’s point home: a family’s history and reputation can never be spun clean.
Autumn Royal is on at Project Arts Centre until 11 February 2017. Click here for more details.