A Theatre Review by Frances Devlin-Glass
Little Gem by Elaine Murphy, directed by Richard Keown, for The Mount Players, Macedon, 5 March 2017
A new Irish play, by a woman, an Australian premiere (amateur) production, directed by Richard Keown, who has a long track record directing the Irish repertoire, was not to be missed. Even if it was in Macedon, so far from known Irish haunts (though Kilmore is not too far away).
The play apparently began life as a monologue and became three, about three generations of women from the one family, and it was staged very simply with a few powerpoint slides, a few chairs, some quick costume changes, on a black stage. Except for the very effective change in staging at the end – let me not spoil the surprise. Good narratives don’t need much more, and these monologues really rocked.
At first the three generations seem disconnected and dysfunctional. The contemporary woman, Amber, is mid-twenties, an habitué of Temple Bar nightclubs, imaged probably at the height of the Celtic Tiger. Night-clubs are her home away from home, places where snorting drugs gives energy to the glittery platforms, and an edge of paranoia about the competition. Amber, played by the youngster of the team, Marian Griffin, grew about a foot in the scene where she uses standover tactics in the loo over a girl who looked at her sideways. The boyfriend Paul is at the front of consciousness and he is unreliable at best. It does not augur well.
Her mother, Lorraine (Sonja Prater), is also prone to anger and depressed, so her explosion with an obstructive customer takes her in unexpected life-changing directions, to Paris via the Salsa Club and ‘manky’ bars, also in Temple Bar. The narrative is cleverly contrived to excavate her past history with a drug-addict husband whom she’s seen off the scene but who is inclined to make unwelcome reappearances. It’s not much wonder that for a while, she has not much emotional space for Amber. The scene in which she relates the process of her therapy with a new age-y practitioner was very funny. She has little reason to trust men or suits, but every reason to enjoy the odd chocolate biscuit administered as part of the HR rituals.
Elaine Murphy’s sharp eye for detail and love of the vernacular was everywhere apparent, but none more so than with the grandmother of the family, Kaye (Karen Hunt), who was costumed as an old (too old?) 60 year old, and who arrives on stage with a vulval itch. Her impersonation of her treating doctor, a Pakistani woman, was gentle but hilarious, as was her excursion to the sex shops for Kermit, an aid to help her meet her sexual needs given that her husband Jem could no longer do so. She too seems at first to be disgruntled with her family life. Her costumes were perhaps a couple of decades older than they needed to be for an even lower class Celtic Tiger granny; they were rather too stereotypical and dowdy, and took away from some fabulous acting.
What the play does so well is put on show a very different modern post-Tiger Ireland, where women’s sexuality is more openly discussed, where mothers work hard to ignore their guilt and the housework if better things are on offer, where the church no longer controls so rigidly the rules about divorce and illegitimate babies and mothers no longer end up in Magdalen asylums burdened with shame. There’s a marvellous scene at the grandfather’s funeral where Amber shows her baby for the first time to his other grandparents – the kind of behaviour that might not have been possible even 30 years ago. There’s no opprobrium placed on the missing father, as one knows these women can do what they have to for the child. They are women with agency, who are committed to seizing their pleasures as and when they can, and when men come under the microscope, they are subject to merciless but not unfair parody. Except, of course, for those who demonstrate their willingness to treat women with tenderness and care.
It’s hard to bring off monologues, and they call for compelling storytellers as actors. Each of these was, with the very experienced Karen Hunt setting the bar for her peers. Each actor was given a lot of business, sometimes I thought a bit too much, and a tad fussy. I wondered if more streamlined gestural business might have been enough? Pacing the narrative, light and shade in delivery, was often superb, and given that the audience was hearing probably unfamiliar (but very convincing) accents (only one was the genuine article), I think more variation in pace of delivery would have added something. And allowed more laugh time, for there was a lot of comedy in the piece.
The play is a heart-warmer, though it works hard not to be too sentimental. There’s much vernacular swearing (so don’t take the easily offended!). It’s a terrific excuse to leg it out to Macedon by 11 March. Congrats to the team who created Little Gem, especially the director and his three actors.