Some fairytales revolve around self-fulfilling or trying-to-be-avoided prophecies. The father in the Brothers Grimms’ Sleeping Beauty, for instance, withdraws all spindles from his kingdom because a witch has cursed them – leaving his daughter to grow up unable to recognise one.
There’s something of the Grimms in In Lee Coffey’s curious new play for Bitter Like a Lemon, in association with Theatre Upstairs. At one point, a wheezing grandmother issues a mysterious warning to three teenage girls leaving for the country: “Beware of the crows!”
The students are being sent on an intensive study retreat for the weekend, under the supervision of a bristly alcoholic teacher. Their back and forth, funnily written as barbed backtalk and gossipy chatter, is delivered like lightning under Karl Shiels’s direction. Moreover, Coffey gives a sensitive portrayal of working class life, and the inhabitants of Dublin’s inner-city flats.
Teenage anxieties are also thoughtfully present. Katie Honan’s Sam elects to lose her virginity on their weekend away, giving into the mocking of Aisling O’Mara’s hard-edged Jess (their parents’ absence is sadly noted). Awkward courting rituals commence, as the actors comically transform into priggish boys from the suburbs (Amilia Stewart’s characterisations mightn’t be as crystal-cut but she plays with heart).
The play’s fascinating mix of fantasy and social realism is also found in Naomi Faughnan’s set, an enormous black twiny nest (and a sly setting-up the play’s final scene). But what are we to make of the warning signs – a flock of crows fleeing their trees – when they appear? In fairytales, sex is considered dangerous (Rapunzel gets pregnant in an early version of that story). But Coffey also shapes this as a coming-of-age story, where usually sex, most likely in conspicuous circumstances, is necessary to develop the protagonist’s sense of self. The play has written itself into a corner.
That might help explain the confusion of a production populated by realistic and credulous characters but fitted for a fantasy in Laura Honan and Shiels’s overly-decadent sound design. Something has to give.
As the final act unfolds, the drama becomes alarmingly high-risk. A heinous crime is committed, and absolute revenge follows. But boy, is it a leap! Coffey rushes the action along (a coming-of-age story needs to reach some adult understanding, after all), and the consensus seems to be that lives are forever changed. Warnings continue to be ignored – but who’s held to account?
A Murder of Crows is on until 17th December 2016 at Theatre Upstairs in Dublin. Click here for more details.