Vanessa O’Neill, In Search of Owen Roe, La Mama Theatre, 19 June -5 July 215
In Search of Owen Roe, written and performed by Vanessa O’Neill is presently having a season at La Mama, Carlton. In tracing the elusive history of her great grandfather Owen Roe, named after his famous antecedent of Battle of Benburb (1646) fame, O’Neill takes us on a momentous journey from her family’s first arrival in Australia. Her journey starts at an unmarked grave at Karrakatta Cemetery in Cottesloe, WA. This was her great grandfather Owen Roe’s last resting place. Born to an Irish immigrant in the Bendigo goldfields, and taking on his father’s trade as a barber, he moved to Western Australia, initially in Fremantle and then Coolgardie, Kalgoorlie, Boulder and lastly Perth.This is a beautifully balanced theatrical presentation and captivates the audience right from the first moment. To the plaintive sounds of uilleann pipes, O’Neill descends the stairs onto the stage and engages the audience in a hilarious monologue about her first of many trips to Ireland, where she enjoyed the craic in pubs and fell in love with the sound of the voice of every mischievous Irish male she encountered. She then switches with ease to the seriousness of the research on hand and recounts the trail of false leads she follows whilst unpeeling layer after layer to unveil the truth and discover why Owen Roe was elusive, and possibly why he had changed his name to Garry.
This play is more than the retelling of a family saga. It is a journey. It is Vanessa’s own journey of self discovery, the meaning of her Irishness, and a discovery of the strengths and foibles that she has inherited from those before her, and woven into her own unique theatrical creation.
In spite of the colourful tale of Owen Roe’s exploits across the country, it is her and her son’s relationships with her father that bring real pathos to this play, especially in the way she portrays her helplessness in not being able to save him from the torment of age and dementia. Her transformation into the part of her father is wholly convincing, with the aid of just a chair, and the marvellous La Mama stairs.
The play is directed by Glynis Angell. The unique challenges facing the director in a solo actor play are often increased when the performer is also the writer. Here it is evident that there is a deep trust and respect between the two that spells out in the quality of the production.
In the staging of Searching for Owen Roe everything comes together. The lighting fitted with performance and space perfectly. Annie Edney’s set design was minimalist, yet so effective. The choice of Irish band, Foolin In Doolin, as musical background, subtle yet obvious, lent itself to the purity of the mood she created. I would count this play as one of the finest I have enjoyed at this much loved theatre.
I have seen countless performances at La Mama over the years with Liz Jones so ably at the helm. Ways of using the intimate space are limitless although lighting sometimes has its challenges. Moreover it has such a welcoming atmosphere, especially on a winter’s night with the blazing courtyard fire and space to sit and discuss the play afterwards.
Renee Leen Huish
Renee is Irish-born and bred, and has acted and directed in theatres around Melbourne for several decades, most recently directing A Stretch of the Imagination for Bloomsday in Melbourne.