REVIEW! Gutted by Sharon Byrne @ Churchill Studio, Bromley

Directed by Chris White
Produced by Vivienne Foster
Cast: Eleanor Byrne, Niamh Finlay and Sarah Hosford
Touring the UK 3rd – 30th October 2019

Gutted follows the vignetted lives of three Irishwomen living in a colourful 1980s Dublin, dark under the looming shadow of the Troubles. Generally speaking, however, our three protagonists are less concerned with sectarian violence than they are with boys, parties and the pursuit and attendance of both. Connected by their shared work at a fish processing factory (introduced in an engaging but slightly too long choreographed sequence portraying the draining monotony of the work) our three leads are Deidre (Naimh Finlay), the youngest and most naïve at fifteen, Delores (Sarah Hosford), barely an adult, from the wrong side of town and desperate to escape, and Breda (Eleanor Byrne), firmly into her twenties and with two children by her dead-beat ex-husband.

The show play out as a series of monologues as the proverbial camera shifts between the three women; when one character is in focus the other two performers become the background characters to their narrative until it is their turn to take up the mantle of storyteller. The performances given by all three of the actors are excellent, as they slip between characters and throw the focus back and forth between each other. The writing too, is sharp, funny and heartbreaking by turns, but the format collapses in on itself slightly, seeming better suited to a twenty-minute performance at a graduation showcase or scratch-night than the full hour that the production stretches to. Any ten-minute part of the play taken in isolation would be quite riveting, and makes the kind of writing actors love to mine for audition monologues, but taken as a whole it lacks the momentum to engage its audience all the way to the conclusion.

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The subject matter is coarse but realistic, though it leans heavily on clichés and tropes that offer little in the way of new insight to women’s experiences: art imitates life and almost all of the trials and tribulations the characters face are grounded in the predatory behaviours and toxic masculinity of the men in their lives. In the interest of content warning, the play deals quite graphically with rape and sexual assault. In the time since the play was first written and staged it is also notable that abortion has been legalised in Ireland, making Gutted, if anything, even more topical than it was when it first saw the stage.

Under the lighting and musical direction of Marty Langthorne, the play is effective in its minimalist, touring set, liberally adorned with lights of all kinds, lampshades and light bars and hanging globes and reading lights, all of which flicker and dim at the needs of the story and are transformed into people and props in the hands of the performers. Delores, Deidre, and Breda’s world is liberally informed by the music of the era, with songs from the parties and clubs the characters attend serving as the glue holding the three narratives together; particular attention is lavished on Soft Cell’s rendition of Tainted Love which weaves in and out of the play as an anthem reflective of all three character’s experiences.

Although there’s a lot of Irish theatre out there, the voices of young working class women are often conspicuously absent on the stage, or confined to the roles of love interest; it’s always refreshing to hear social experiences from a new perspective. If you are interested in seeing some excellent performances by some compelling young actors, get yourself a ticket to one of Gutted‘s touring locations before the end of the season.

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Previous review: Red Palace by Shotgun Carousel @ The Vaults

REVIEW! Cuckoo by Lisa Carroll @ Soho Theatre

Written by Lisa Carroll
Directed by Debbie Hannan
Produced by Sofi Berenger

Presented by Metal Rabbit Productions
13 November – 8 December 2018

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Elise Heaven and Caitriona Ennis as Pingu and Iona. Images courtesy of David Gill

Cuckoo is a new play from Irish playwright Lisa Carroll. It follows the story of Iona, a teen girl growing up in rural Ireland, and her best friend Pingu, who is non-binary, voluntarily mute, and sports a raggedy ensemble of hoodie, tuxedo, and lapel badges, which I found oddly appealing. The two are sick of being social outcasts in their little town, where poverty is rife, opportunities are few, and the teenagers are particularly vicious – so, they decide to buy one-way Ryanair tickets to London, where they can start afresh. When the local cool kids get wind of this plan via Iona’s social media broadcasts, she finds herself suddenly getting the attention she always craved – but how will this impact her plans to get out, and her relationship with Pingu? It’s a variation on the same teen drama premise that inspired Mean Girls and countless others, but this story is Irish not American, so there is no Hollywood happy ending here.

The black box theatre space is small and intimate, with rows of audience seating arranged along both long sides of a profile stage. I would strongly advise arriving early enough to land one of the front row seats, as the barely-tiered rows behind have obscured views of the stage (especially if the front row occupants are tall!). However, even if you can’t see the lower parts of the stage, this won’t ruin your enjoyment of the show, as its main attraction is the fizzing energy and dialogue of its characters. Caitriona Ennis as Iona is particularly outstanding, with razor-sharp comic abilities and an incredibly expressive face and voice. Peter Newington as Trix plays a straightforward toxically masculine bully with aplomb, but Colin Campbell and Sade Malone have the more challenging roles of antagonists with vulnerabilities and softer sides. The fact that these supporting roles still have their own compelling and pathos-filled arcs speaks to both the actors’ and writer’s skills.

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Elise Heaven and Sade Malone as Pingu and Toller. Images courtesy of David Gill

Elise Heaven as Pingu also manages to be wonderfully expressive, despite their grand total of zero lines; instead, their eyes and body language have to do all the work in expressing anguish, joy, sass, hurt, worry, resentment, and everything in between. I’m still not completely comfortable about the ethics of having a non-binary character who is mainly just a silent satellite around the cisgender protagonist, but in some ways, I suppose the fact that Pingu’s gender identity does not dominate the conversation is a step towards normalisation. The usage of singular they/them pronouns is still quite new even to more progressive social circles, but not even the bullies in Cuckoo misgender Pingu. The play and, for the most part its characters, do not treat Pingu’s gender identity like a riddle to be solved, but as just another reason why they and the quirky Iona don’t fit in.

Iona is the only character in the play who goes by their birth name (I’m assuming that “Pockets”, for example, is probably a nickname). This, to me, seems yet another example of how she inhabits a no-man’s-land between belonging to a group – and being bestowed with a personalised nickname from the gang – and having the confidence for independent self-determination like Pingu, who we presume chose their own name as part of their journey coming out. The name “Iona” isn’t even Irish, but Scottish; for all that it looks and sounds typically Irish, it is an outsider in the small country town of Crumlin. Much like its bearer. And so it is no surprise that Iona’s desperate attempts to belong will fail, no matter how many others she pushes from the nest to do so.

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Caitriona Ennis and Colin Campbell as Iona and Pockets. Images courtesy of David Gill

These characters are messy, with figurative open wounds bleeding all over the floor even as they continue to claw at each other. Their moments of connection and softness are beautiful, as are their flares of raw rage at the hand they’ve been dealt. Cuckoo is a snapshot of a very specific piece of society, exploring questions of class, gender, youth, belonging, family, and fried chicken. And, throughout all of this, it is laugh-out-loud funny! Young people in particular will appreciate the way Cuckoo is bang up to date for 2018, but I fear that many of the pop culture, political, and technological references will date fairly quickly – all the more reason to catch it while it’s fresh.

Tickets

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Previous review: vessel by Sue MacLaine Company @ Battersea Arts Centre