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is a comedy of class set in an Ireland seated uneasily upon the back of the Celtic Tiger.
First produced in 1996, the play captures the sense of panic which has gripped the nouveau
riche. The beneficiaries of the economic boom are uncomfortable with their newfound
affluence, vulgar in their determination to enjoy the fruits of their success, and
uncertain of how to react to one another in social situations.
The story takes place over a fraught evening on the Sycamore Estate as
newly-arrived couple Vinny (Sean Power) and Joan (Jenny Maher) entertain established
locals Derek (Ciaran McMahon) and Hilary (Fiona Browne). Vinny, formerly a Mr.
Fixit employee, has risen up in the world to become a "security engineer",
but Joan, unable to shed her working class roots, is not entirely happy with the move.
Though she has befriended an elderly man living in an old house at the edge of the estate
(Niall OBrien), she is nervous even with her own expectations.
When Derek and Hilary arrive, things seem to take a turn for the worse.
Their apparent self-assurance and affected sophistication are a world away from anything
Joan has ever known, and though she is eager to impress, nothing seems to go right. The
cracks in the visiting couples veneer begin to show fairly quickly though. Derek is
in advertising, though Hilary likes to think of him as a doctor (he attends first aid
classes and has trophies for his prowess). Both of them seem to despise the old man, who
has also been invited for drinks, and there are signs of marital tensions which will
become more pronounced as the evening progresses.
The first act is an entertaining and nicely observed lounge-room comedy
concentrating on the hypocrisies and petty tyrannies of suburban manners. It is fairly
generic, but there are many entertaining details, such as Vinny and Joans squabbling
over grammar, Vinnys obsession with his hi-tech security system, the situation
comedy which transpires when Derek and Hilary reveal that they have arrived expecting
dinner in spite of Vinnys assurance to Joan that they had only come for drinks, and
the running gag about Dereks physical resemblance to a doctor (a joke later revealed
to have hidden depths). The farce is well staged and well played, demonstrating good comic
timing and a subtlety in characterization which allows for the slow erosion of initial
impressions that works both narratively and thematically.
The arrival of Mr. Prentice (ONeill) in the second act moves
things to an altogether different level. Strains of allegory become more visible as it is
shown that the old man is a retired farmer, and the estate has been constructed partly on
his land. A sense of the shifting textures of the physical and social landscape begins to
inform the play. The theme ascends to narrative conflict as Derek confronts Prentice about
his attempts to block further residential development. Darker, more pointed satire is in
evidence, and even the plot moves away from polite frivolity towards something more
An older, more familiar Ireland underlies everything that is seen, not
only in the form of the struggle over Prentices land, but in the emergence of
familiar rhythms of personal and social interaction. Joan and Hilary connect over points
of domestic conspiracy, Vinny and Derek sneak a bottle of whisky out of the room as they
go to inspect the security system, the influence of mothers is felt and seen,
and the rivalries and deceptions of the past hold the key to the realities of the present.
In spite of the peach-colored furniture, the remote-controlled lights and intercoms, and
the sense of wealth and social advancement, people are subject to the same weaknesses and,
eventually, show the same strengths.
There is much that is worthwhile in Bernard Farrells text, and
director Jim Nolan has generally drawn it out. The cast respond well to the mixture of
farce and satire. Each develops their characters voice and mannerisms gradually,
stripping away the pretences in a series of movements which correspond with the progress
of the plot. There are a few scenes in which the acting fails though, especially the
all-important confrontation between McMahon and ONeill. McMahons transition
from frustration to violence is too abrupt to be believable, leaving the audience
wondering if the play is losing its way rather than turning the screws. Luckily there is
enough plot left for it to regain its rhythm, and the acting is sufficiently skilful to
execute the tricky ending, where the new and old Ireland meet in
mutual fraudulence and coercion. Though it is being presented as light summer
entertainment, there is a contextual complexity here which makes it both enjoyable and
Dublin, June 25, 2002
- Harvey O'Brien