Mark O’Rowe turns his attention from the savage Dublin underclass to the city’s suburban class in this new play. The suburbanites may lack the technicolour language of his last, the tremendous Howie The Rookie, but there’s a fair bit of turbulence to be had in Margaret and Michael’s comfy and spaciously cozy house, designed and decorated by Paul Wills. A turbulence expertly repressed however, and forming a pile of sweepings under the carpet so deep and dense it has its own magnetic field.
Margaret, played by Sinéad Cusack, skirts it with a very becoming world-weary elegance, while her husband Michael, played by Ciarán Hinds, a solid, no-nonsense Dubliner, a member of what used to be called the “working-class aristocracy,” seems imperturbable in his easy-going amiableness. Their thirty-year old daughter Adele, played by Charlie Murphy, is the edgy, nervous one. Amongst other things her dad doesn’t appreciate the demands her emotional wreck of a friend Belinda makes upon her, which accounts for the eagerness with which he entertains her new boyfriend Dennis, played by Tom Vaughan-Lawlor. Dennis may provide the antidote to the demanding, crisis-ridden Belinda.
But it isn’t to be. The amiable Dennis, working as a bar-man by day to fund his history and philosophy studies, was using Adele to get at the real object of his desires: Margaret. He confesses this to her on the night of his first visit. Michael, thoroughly warmed to him, won’t allow him to leave, although Adele has left him there, having sped off to rescue her friend Belinda once again.
This is the moment things begin to unravel, and the scene between a thoroughly disgusted Margaret and a pleading Dennis – “I can heal you!” – is the first in a number of engrossingly authentic emotional confrontations. The acting in O’Rowe’s production is superb, though Hinds takes the laurels for his performance in the closing scene, a “having it out” scene with Margaret which shows a man who really only wants to enjoy the home and the life they’ve painstakingly built up shaken to the emotional core by the provocative attitude of the woman he still loves.
Cusack and Hinds capture perfectly one of those emotionally charged situations between men and women which, despite the weight of shared history and affection, can go either way.
Murphy also earns laurels for her behaviour in an earlier heart-to-heart with Margaret over what really happened the night her eleven-year old brother supposedly ran away, never to be seen again. Adele heard her father, whose tendency to settle some disputes with his fists is something she hates, shouting terrible things at the boy, and is now convinced he said or did something to turn Dennis away also. Adele is in a bad way, Dennis has dropped her and her friend Belinda has killed herself. Her ignorance of the fate of her brother, and the dread that something terrible happened all those years ago has been hanging over her like a Damoclean sword for two decades. Sitting at the kitchen table with her mother, it’s dismantled piece by awkward piece.
Though for us O’Rowe leaves the mystery of the eleven-year old boy intact, quite eerily so at the end. But I’m not entirely convinced that the mystery provides sufficient grounding for the play’s gripping emotional confrontations. The boy feels like more of a catalyst, but a somewhat arbitrary one, hinging on what no contemporary Irish drama seems able to do without: child abuse. Though here, in a neatly naughty reversal, it’s the boy supposedly abusing his mother.
The play begins with Margaret asleep on the sofa bed she sleeps on every night, supposedly because she doesn’t want to disturb Michael with her sleeping problems, and the bed is folded out and arranged throughout the play, in a ritualistic fashion which reminded me, unpleasantly, of Enda Walsh and the skin-crawlingly irritating rituals of The Walworth Farce. This sense of ritual – a very muted form of Walsh’s, mercifully – closes the play in sacrificial tones. But who, or what, is being sacrificed? It’s a beautifully, spookily executed close, but not as fully satisfying as the cathartic emotional blood-letting of what went before.