Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Portia Coughlan Review

Published online for The Irish World newspaper 20/05/2015

It is rare that a play can resurface triumphantly after 20 years away from the stage. Marina Carr’s play  Portia Coughlan has emerged from such an absence at The Old Red Lion Theatre under the direction of Bronagh Lagan.

The story of Portia Coughlan is a heavy one, laden with emotions and idealised memories of the past.  Set in the Irish midlands, Portia seems to have what many would assume to be the perfect family life. As a mother to three children and a well-kept wife to a loving and wealthy husband, it seems that Portia should be more than elated on her 30th birthday. However her overly romanticised recollections of the suicide of her twin brother Gabriel still constantly haunt her and dominate both her thoughts and actions.

Portia fantasises about death and her reunion with her twin. The audience is made aware of her many moments of deep  despair by the accompaniment of her deceased brother’s version of “She Moved Through the Fair ” delivered by a haunting young man behind a darkened curtain.
Portia is an Ophelia-type character, beautiful yet classically tragic. Her intimate obsession with the Belmont River, the place of her brother’s demise, becomes uncontrollable and manic which in turn affects her relationships with those around her.

Portia is played by Susan Stanley, whose piercing blue eyes and willowy mannerisms add to both the beauty and frenzy of the character.

The play deals with depression and hopelessness and so it is hard not to become somewhat drained as an audience member in such a small theatre. The constant heated arguments between Portia and her family can, at times, be both exciting and exhausting. This is softened occasionally by some very witty one-liners from her bitter Grandmother, played excellently by Anne Kent.

With it’s dark themes, Portia Coughlan is not for everyone but it does provoke thought
The stage was small and simple, comprising of a kitchen setting and a small square filled with water-signifying the river. This worked well, given the limited space and the actors manoeuvred themselves skilfully around both sides, allowing the audience to truly imagine each contrasting setting.
However, it does not seem that Carr was ever setting out to create a fun-packed evening of theatre when writing this play. Her work raises the important question of why it is that we go to the theatre? Is it with the intention of improving our mood and to leave feeling entertained or does it take a more powerful play to teach us lessons and unmask harsh social realities we might usually avoid?

As plays go, this is certainly not one that everyone will enjoy. It’s script is littered with aggressive arguments, often with colourful language, and it’s characters are dark and past hope. This play will suit theatre-goers who enjoy being challenged, pushed to the limits and who have a taste for the dark and romantic.
Portia Coughlan plays at The Red Lion Theatre in Angel until May 23rd.

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Review of Death of a Comedian

Published in The Irish World Newspaper 06/05/2015

It is commonly assumed that the test of a comedian is in his skill for comedic timing. Belfast born Owen McCafferty’s play Death of a Comedian, challenges this assumption and focuses more on the moral importance of their content rather than their style of delivery.

The play centres around a struggling Irish comedian called Steve Johnston, who is repeatedly questioning his ability when the stage first lights up- “What if I’m not funny? What if I’m just not funny?”

His girlfriend Maggie, whose job it is to reassure and guide him in his chosen career, tries to keep him calm before he’s called on stage to perform.  McCafferty immediately opens us up to the fragility of the performer and the contrasting character of confident comedian we are so often used to seeing on stage.

The role of self- conscious comedian is played brilliantly by Brian Doherty, who has the range to stretch easily between boisterous performer and self-doubting fool.

Steven Johnston’s troubles begin when an obnoxious and fast talking agent, named Doug Wright, enters his life and feeds his ego with a vernacular of showbiz lingo and ambiguous promises of fame.

McCafferty’s honestly written play shows us how a mix of self-doubt and hunger for fame can be a lethal concoction as it creates vulnerability in the performer and leads them to a tormented battle between their own success and morality.

Gradually we begin to see Johnston change as a performer and morph into a different type of comedian from that with which we were first presented. His material is heavily affected, his set is safe and unimaginative and his accent becomes more anglicised.

Johnston’s original material focused more on social and political views as he monologued about corrupt politicians and the insincerity of television hosts. This honesty in performance is diluted later in the show by both Johnston’s own vulnerability and his agent’s dismissal of the importance of identity and individualism in performance- “A good comic can make anything funny.”

A joke which is heavily altered as his comedic set evolves is that of one about a racehorse galloping ferociously across a field until it hits an oak tree and knocks itself out. It may be that McCafferty is likening the evolution of this final joke to that of Johnston as a performer, galloping unwittingly fast into a life of fame that he doesn’t realise is actually his demise.

The message this play has to make is clear and requires no unpicking on the part of the audience, so its 80 minute duration seemed perfectly fitting.

Although the repetition of certain jokes might test some people’s patience, essentially, Death of a Comedian is a play that will get you thinking. The mixture of McCafferty’s honest script, Steve Marmion’s punchy direction and a well-chosen cast makes for a refreshingly humane piece of theatre.Overall it is a cynical yet justifiably critical portrayal of fame and those who offer it.

Death of a Comedian, which is presented in association with Lyric Belfast and The Abbey Theatre in Dublin, plays at the Soho Theatre in London until Saturday 16th May.