The Black Sheep of the O’Neill Clan

Vanessa O'Neill contemplate the documented past. Photo by Sarah Walker

Vanessa O’Neill contemplate the documented past. Photo by Sarah Walker

Theatre Review by Anna-Rose Shack

Vanessa O’Neill: In Search of Owen Roe – La Mama, Carlton, Melbourne.

26th May 2016


Vanessa O’Neill’s In Search of Owen Roe is a one-woman show of gently dramatised storytelling, playing at La Mama theatre in May 2016 after a sold-out season in 2015.

Owen Roe, who led an Irish rebellion in the 1640s, is established as an almost legendary figure in her family’s history and the man after whom many of her relatives have been named. Indeed, the play centres on her search for the story of her great-grandfather, another Owen Roe, who now lies in an unmarked grave in Western Australia. The play weaves together strands of family history, her relationship with her father who is suffering from Alzheimer’s and her love affair with her own Irish heritage (and more than a few Irish men).

It is a compilation of anecdotal encounters with her heritage and her family. Yet there is a clear obsession with discovering the story of her great-grandfather. She suggests that her search for Owen Roe is in fact her search for a fellow ‘black sheep’ amongst her ancestors, turning her search into a validation of her existence in the present.

The play is fragmented by a myriad of characters and scenes and while O’Neill’s bright eyes and open face lend themselves perfectly to the task, this fragmentation is perhaps detrimental to the successful engagement with larger themes. O’Neill rarely breaks into the realm of heightened theatrical expression, something that would perhaps enable a more profound exploration of her own character.

Ultimately, there is a level of warmth to O’Neill’s performance that manages to hold the audience for the full hour. The atmosphere is also enhanced by an evocative soundscape that at times externalises her swirling thoughts and silent musings. Her obsessive search of the past reveals her great-grandfather, Owen Roe, to have been a barber of some repute and although this ending is a little anti-climactic, perhaps therein lies its poignancy; history is what we make of it in the present.

Anna-Rose Shack

Anna-Rose is an Englishwoman, of Irish extraction, who hails from West Australia. She has an interest in theatre and Irish history.



Anna-Rose Shack