In the fresh mountain air of Tipperary, a young woman returned from London tells her British boyfriend about Bridget Cleary. Murdered in 1895 on suspicion of being a fairy, Bridget’s tragedy, relayed in Margaret Perry’s debut play by Hat (Lola Petticrew), leaves Bill (Bamshad Abedi-Amin) to dryly sum up our astonishment: “Shit”.
Receiving an ardent production by the Abbey Theatre, Perry’s play strikes the tone of a thriller. Unexplained anxiety and mystery ripple through an awkward reunion with an estranged friend (wittily played by Caitríona Ennis), a scene Hat enters pushing a pram, and exits without. The script turns back in time to show her move to London, and the early stages of a new romance. It’s a suspenseful journey into motherhood if anything.
If there’s revelation here, it’s in the arrival of Bridget Cleary herself. Subtly absorbing in Toni O’Rourke’s performance, she comes and goes, watched by her husband, tense and tortured in the shape of Keith McErlean. Their short intercutting scenes suggests a shortage of historical evidence, but also a script better suited for film. Set designer Cécile Trémolières’ flexible interior, in a sweet palette of lemon and caramel yellows, insists on making way.
Perry shows Bridget a woman defying her husband, and exceptional for her time. If she was unbelieved to be herself, maybe she wasn’t. Like Petticrew’s fraught Hat, who we see struggling with postnatal depression in the present, Bridget may have suffered from despondency.
These fresh ideas aside, the play is disappointingly conventional, even teetering on cliché. Bill kisses Hat when she’s neurotic and rambling. During an argument, their dialogue sounds unoriginal. (“I love you.” “I know.”) It doesn’t help that Cathal Cleary’s direction is up-close and slow, as if to show the trepidation of every scene, but suspending any adrenaline in the pace. The thriller loses steam.
Most bewildering is Perry’s decision to include the fairy character Silvertongue. Comically played by Helen Norton, she shows up disguised as a hairdresser and a meditation teacher before offering Hat an escape. If folklore and speculation was dangerously used against Bridget Cleary, it seems like an act of self-sabotage for Perry to treat myth as if it were something more real. That leaves a play confused about its strengths.
There’s serious thought here about the obligations put on people. When Abedi-Amin’s worried Bill asks a disconsolate Hat why she disappeared without a word, she replies: “I don’t know what to say.” It sounds less like a writer’s oversight, and more like a genuine attempt at an answer.
Porcelain is at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, until March 10th. For more details, click here.