Thursday, January 21, 2010

Review: Little Gem at the Peacock Theatre, Dublin

"Love, sex, birth, death and salsa classes. Three generations of women. One extraordinary year"
I'm delighted I took the opportunity to go to tonight's opening performance of Little Gem, the award winning play by Elaine Murphy, running at the Peacock Theatre until February 27.

Starring Anita Reeves, Hilda Fay and Sarah Greene, Little Gem is a wonderfully touching, sentimental and - though I dislike the word for its maudlin overtones - heartwarming story of a year in the life of three women, three generations in the one family, told by each of them in turn.
"I loved this play, i went from laughing out loud to wiping a tear from my eye!  The characters are so real, you end up wanting to be part of their family!"
The Peacock Theatre really is an ideal venue for a play like this. Its intimate size means that you're close to the actors, close to the stage and quite part of the story, and indeed, the audience play a part in this by just listening. What do I mean?

Well, each character, first Amber, the 19 year old on her way to the debs, then Lorraine, her mother who works in retail on Mary St and then Kay, Lorraine's mother and Amber's grandmother all tell us their stories directly, stories of their days and their memories, which weaves itself into a very ordinary story told in what seems an extraordinary way - there's no interaction or dialogue shared between the actors.

The set is simple. Three chairs on a stage, one lamp, one tartan effect plastic shopping bag, the backdrop of a sitting room. It struck me while waiting for the play to begin that the three chairs were all very different, but put it down to a simple mismatch, rather than design. That assumption I made followed me throughout the play and surprised me in so many pleasant ways that at the end of the play I was giving a solo standing ovation.
"She drags me out. Haul Dean and his mate Lee onto the middle of the dance floor and gyrate like a pair of lezzers in between them. The lads are all over us like a cheap pair of jocks from Japan - Henry Street, not the country"
When Amber starts her monologue of debs preparation, we're immediately transported to the front room of a Dublin home - it's probably northside, definitely not D4. I loved listening to Sarah Greene, despite her accent slipping ever so slightly the odd time, because her mannerisms and her presence conveyed that certain energy that girls the age of her character tend to have.

The audience, all probably invited guests, chuckled along to some of the funnier lines but when Hilda Fay started her story of her day working in the shop is when the script really kicked into gear and the laughter resounded around the theatre.
"Is there anything you want to share with us, Lorraine?" He says. Afraid to say anything, don't want to stretch my mouth open wider to fit my other foot in. "Are you sacking me, Mr Grant?" Looks at HR bird and then back at me. Wonder if he's riding her?"
Stories written in a Dublin accent tend to be a bit hit and miss. While there's no denying the success of stories like Brendan O' Carrolls 'The Mammy' and Paul Howards Ross O'Carroll Kelly saga, there's also what I'd term the Sunday World version of Dooblin, where situations, personalities and especially use of language are exaggerated and you're left with a sense of knowing what the author is trying to convey, but being unconvinced because you've only heard of people like the characters, never actually experienced them.

Not so with Murphy's creations. While Amber and Lorraine are both wonderful characters, it was Kay, the granny, played by Anita Reeves that I adored. Reeves' performance is excellent, but the script shines through bringing this lovely, aging woman to life and delivering us laughter and loneliness time and time again. Telling us about her recuperating husband, she says
"He's not the easiest of patients. In fact, to put it mildly, he's a cantankerous oul' fuck. I don't mean to go down this road but sire I've started so I'll finish. I'm dyin' for me bit. We've always been very compatible in that department, which is a miracle by itself, because by the time you get to our age you'd normally be lacing the cocoa with arsenic not Viagra."
and by the time she described her journey on the 42B to Ann Summers to buy a certain object recommended to her by Marjorie Burke, not only was everyone in the audience laughing, but I could see the smiles of the actresses on stage, all who had no doubt heard the script hundreds of times, smiling at the audience reaction and knowing there was more to come.

Scribbling notes throughout, I scribbled one to Niamh beside me "This is VERY good" while a woman behind me whispered to her companion "She's great" as Hilda Fay took her seat after another brilliant delivery. Tonight's audience were a delight to experience - they laughed in the right places, were silent in the poignant moments and I'm sure more than me had a tear in their eyes at the particularly emotional and personal points.

There-in lies the charm of Little Gem - there's no high dramatic ideals here, no allegories or inaccessible language, no moral or intellectual lessons being delivered - it's a story of an ordinary family and what happens there, and that's why it has the power to affect people the way it did.

The applause at the end of tonight's performance was loud, sustained, well deserved and full of appreciation. While I'm sure the cast must be tired after their recent return from the run in New York, they put in a marvellous performance, one which, by the end, we wanted to continue, and to find out more about. "That was brilliant" I heard one person say on the way out, "Really surprised by how funny it was." Another woman was wiping her eyes, tears streaming down as she assured her male companion "I'm fine, love, it's just with dad passing, well, it's all so real".

In her author's note, Elaine Murphy, herself an actress (Prosperity, The Clinic, Pure Mule), whose playwriting debut was Little Gem, says
"When you start out writing, people always say: 'Write about what you know.' being an actress for the last couple of years, I always had a yearning to write something myself. Decent parts are thin on the ground and I rarely recognised any of the women portrayed on the stage in front of me.

I work part-time in a women's health organisation. Little Gem grew from there. It's a mishmash of all the women I've met over the years: hardworking, not particularly rich or poor, ignored by the Celtic Tiger, and the recession probably won't make much of a difference to them either, you know women like us, getting on with it."
Her play, staged in conjunction with the Civic Theatre Tallaght (21 years old this year!) by the multi award winning independent Gúna Nua Theatre Company, founded in 1998 by Paul Meade (who directs this production) and David Parnell has won the Fishamble award for best New Irish Writing and the Best Female Performance at the Dublin Fringe Festival, 2008. It also featured in last year's Edinburgh Fringe Festival where it won the Carol Tamber Best of Edinburgh Award and has just completed (on Jan 16) an 11 day run in the Flea Theatre in Tribeca, New York.

If I could offer you five reasons to see the play, they are, in no particular order:
  1. It will make you laugh long and hard because it's a great script.
  2. It will make you want to hug someone after, because it's a story you'll recognise
  3. Anita Reeves as Kay
  4. Sarah Greene as Amber
  5. Hilda Fay as Lorraine
I'll be back to see it. Genuinely. I'll be bringing my parents. I'll be going with my friends.

It plays at the Peacock, as above, until February 27. Tickets are from €20 and can be booked online or from the Abbey Box office at +353 (0)1 87 87 222.

Following its run in the Peacock Little Gem will tour to 5 venues around Ireland: Draíocht in Blanchardstown; The George Bernard Shaw Theatre in Carlow; The Belltable in Limerick; The Axis, Ballymun and back to the Civic Theatre, Tallaght.


Thanks as always to David in the Abbey Press Office for the tickets. I owe you a pint.

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