A beach, the sound of seagulls gently singing and a group of friends. Nothing could be more relaxing, and it’s how we’re lulled into the story of Wonderful Tennessee, the final play in Sheffield Theatres’ season celebrating the work of Irish playwright Brian Friel.
It’s a brave choice to round off the season, and some may say a foolhardy one. For while Afterplay provided a delightfully brief introduction to Friel, and Translations successfully tackled big ideas in a beautifully intimate manner, the attractions of Wonderful Tennessee are less obvious.
The premise behind it is simple: three middle-aged couples are stranded together on a beach in Ballybeg (Friel’s traditional fictional setting), waiting for a ferryman to ship them across to an island, Oilean Draiochta, where they plan to celebrate a birthday with food, alcohol and music. The ferryman doesn’t turn up, and the six friends are forced to confront truths about about each other and themselves. Cue plenty of talking, sad gazing into the middle distance and an infuriating tendency to burst into song at any given moment.
The entire premise of Wonderful Tennessee rests on whether you care enough about any of these characters to want to spend two hours with them. Right from the start of the play, there’s a small sense of irritation building with a seemingly endless series of off-stage conversations – by the time the characters eventually appear on stage, you’re already feeling mildly annoyed by them.
Music is a key element of Wonderful Tennessee, and it’s here that the play also becomes pretty hard work. One character, George, is a terminally ill musician who brings his accordion with him, and when the conversation becomes too serious or awkward, he’s called upon to strike up a tune so the group can start a sing-song. It’s obvious that the group are using music to avoid uncomfortable intimacy, but it soon becomes wearisome. There’s only so many times you can watch a group of obviously unhappy people convince themselves they’re not so by launching into a half-hearted version of “Happy Days Are Here Again”.
Friel is often compared to Chekhov with good reason – he’s translated several of the Russian’s works into English and Afterplay was basically Chekhovian fan-fiction – but this is closer to Samuel Beckett than anything else. Carlin, the boatman who never arrives, is the Godot of Wonderful Tennessee and we have six different versions of Vladimir and Estragon awaiting him. Sadly, none of the characters are as well rounded as Beckett’s creations, and instead we have The Sick One, The One With Depression, The One Who’s Secretly Bankrupt, and so on. The endless conversations and avoidance about big issues have a lulling effect – when a play’s one big moment of drama arrives when a character dives into the sea, it obviously has problems.
It’s frustrating, as it’s very well staged and performed. Simon Daw’s set of a huge sandy wall is dramatic and imposing, and the slow erosion of the sand well represents the crumbling friendship of the six characters. The cast are also impressive, with Cathy Belton standing out as the long-suffering, depression-plagued Berna. Dermot Kerrigan makes for a likeable and funny central character of Terry, while Luke Carver Goss (who also acts as the show’s musical director) brings a quiet dignity to the terminally ill George, who has been robbed of the one thing that’s defined him over the years: his voice. Paul Miller also directs in a quiet, understated manner, but the major weak point here is the material itself.
These are characters who are difficult to identify with and even more hard to engage with. There are obviously some big issues of mortality, aging and friendship being explored, but ultimately it’s difficult to care when faced with such self-absorbed, dull characters. As one of the group, Angela, exclaims during the second half: “What a goddamn, miserable, endless journey this has been”. Regrettably, it’s hard to disagree.