Before is a musical for people who hate musicals. Written and performed by Pat Kinevane, it starts out as the straightforward tale of a man arriving in Dublin to meet the daughter he hasn’t seen in 17 years. Pontius needs to get home in time to milk the cows and feed the dog, but before that he must choose a present for the grown-up daughter he no longer knows and ensure the meeting goes well.
In between his meander around the department store, the piece is intercut with satirical musical songs – a reference in part to the protagonist’s father singing musical numbers from behind a curtain (because he had the voice but not the looks). The songs, in general, are very funny. Poking fun at the ridiculousness of musical plots, and the way characters burst into song at utterly ridiculous moments. Kinevane gets in some excellent little digs at the glitz-and-glam world of Lloyd Webber and pretty much every well-known West End hit most people could name. He also manages to sing-rhyme ‘miserable’ with ‘advisable’, which takes some doing.
The show is also a flashback to the heyday of Clearys, the huge Dublin department store that closed in 2015 (losing 460 people their jobs) and is currently marked to re-open in 2020 in a new super-swish iteration. As Pontius makes his way around the grandiose shop, the cheery tannoy voice directing customers to lady’s stockings and the like becomes gradually more manic until it is shouting directly at Pontius to pick himself up or go buy a silk scarf for his daughter.
In the latter half, Before changes track to focus on how Pontius stopped seeing his daughter, a story that starts with a one-night-stand on top of some bubble wrap (possibly the best minor detail of the whole piece) and then sees him become the devoted weekend dad of a 0 – 4 year old who, it is hinted, might be the product of an incestuous relationship between the child’s mother, Felicity, and her first cousin. Pontius religiously travels up to Dublin each week to see his tot, never missing an alimony payment or visit. But after a vicious row one night, which involves Felicity injuring herself but blaming it on Pontius, full custody is granted to the mother and Pontius, never included on the birth certificate, is barred from seeing his daughter ever again.
In microcosm, the story isn’t so remarkable, but it gains an uncomfortable edge when Kinevane attempts to expand on it to make a Fathers for Justice-style point about how the law favours females and how men are painted as errant villains who abandon their children. It’s a really difficult route to go down because, on the one hand, it’s undoubtedly true there are cases where a man is unfairly denied access to his children, and that’s awful for everyone involved. Likewise, it’s true patriarchal structures and philosophies are damaging to everyone, not just women. But this overarching ‘not all men’ narrative still sits awkwardly. To alight on the one law that seemingly benefits women at the expense of seeing an overarching system and society that doesn’t, can’t help but feel rather short sighted. Child custody practices are also interesting because they’re partly informed by the idea of ‘motherhood’ as something integrally linked to a female body in the way ‘fatherhood’ is not to a male one. And it’s that same mode of thinking that’s also informed, for example, anti-abortion legislation. As in, its ‘benefit’ to women is actually pretty damn negligible.
Anyway, we could discuss all that until Pontius’s cows come home. To end instead on a jolly musical-style note: the patriarchy, what a fucking malarkey.
Before is on at Dance Base until 25th August, as part of the 2019 Edinburgh fringe. More info and tickets here.