Two nervous, well-heeled women in their late sixties appear on either side of the Abbey’s small Peacock stage, already adorned with a rickety storyboard of photos and, crucially, a chart showing the topics they will share with us during the show. They have a story to tell, and it’s one that they tell with unalleviated anxiety and considerable charm.
Their story is that of their love for each other, their life together. Eschewing labels for their love until almost the end of the show, when attending a Pride march after several catalytic events, including a second bout of treatment for ‘BC’ (as the chart puts it) does indeed make them proud in a new way; until now, Alice and Alice have prided themselves mostly on finding each other and on getting through things quietly. Not a bad philosophy, but not the one the writer-director has in mind for them. And therein lies the difficulty of the piece, I think: the charm and power of this play is all in the content, but the form drags it in different directions and proves as distracting and intrusive as the two Alices find the snatches of thematic music that interrupt their story.
Devised by the two actors – written and directed by Amy Conroy and developed with Clare Barrett – the production was first seen as part of the Dublin ABSOLUT Fringe Festival of 2010, and, following awards for Conroy for new writing and for Barrett for best female performance, it was revived as part of last year’s Dublin Theatre Festival. Its current short run at the Peacock builds on recent work there by both actors: Clare Barrett starred in Roddy Doyle’s translation of Gogol’s The Government Inspector, and Amy Conroy is part of the Abbey’s New Playwright programme. Both are talented performers, and this is a charming and funny production, as well as an unusual snapshot of lesbian life in Irish society.
Perhaps that’s what makes the issue of form such a tricky one, even within the context of a devised piece; there’s a sense of nervousness that stems from more than just the two Alices. During one moment the performers camouflage themselves behind cups of tea while a recording plays of them telling the story of their first night together in which both speak with striking fluidity and wit. This idea of them being nervous of presenting their story on stage recurs often throughout the piece, but to what purpose? Those stage-nerves don’t ever seem to go away or evolve; it’s initially sweet and endearing as a tactic, but is never really developed.
There are also oddities – curious but important gaps – in the story they tell: when ‘BC’ first strikes, the treatment barely receives a mention, let alone its physical implications. And the fact that these two are on stage at all is prompted by the fact that the writer-director has seen their impromptu and most uncharacteristic kiss in Tesco in Crumlin shopping centre (for a play that removes itself from larger historical concerns quite insistently and unwisely, it uses a dizzying variety of class-marking details to generate laughs). The subsequent lunch prepared by this writer-director forms part of their story, as do the conversations and recordings which followed, but the actual decision to put the Alices on stage is never mentioned and the character of the writer-director (who is, of course, up there playing Alice Kinsella herself) remains uninterrogated, a benign pleasant presence.
The very pleasantness of all involved in this production, the waves of gentle laughter overriding, any real exploration of conflict or dramatic tension, makes the whole experience less hard-hitting than it might be. At one point, Alice Slattery passes around a plate of Swiss roll to the audience, who settle even more comfortably into their seats as they tuck in. But the final intrusion of form in the closing moments of the play is the most disruptive of all, when all that has been achieved is crudely framed by a hectoring revelation of the tricks we already knew and accepted were there, making the whole frame bizarrely evocative of an electioneering infomercial. The piece as a whole is all very worthy and agreeable, but is rendered much less interesting by the loss of nerve signalled in that final switch.