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Theatre Upstairs: Murder of Crows

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“The only way to get what you want is to make them more afraid of you than they are of each other.”

– The Crimson Crow

Christmas could be very different. And sure it’s unlike anything else in Theatre Upstairs, where unravels a dark tale of friendship, foulness and fighting for the ones you love.

Bitter Like a Lemon in association with Theatre Upstairs presents its latest play Murder of Crows, a story about a school trip to hell. The three best friends Sam (played by Katie Honan), Dee (played by Amilia Stewart) and Jess (played by Aisling O’Mara) aren’t even meant to go in the first place but end up on the bus to the Garden of Ireland anyway. Just before the trip begins the girlfriends hear a prophecy that warns them of the black crows and begs them not to go anywhere near them. Not taking it too seriously, the girls set off on a journey that is going to change their lives forever. In Wicklow, they are scheduled to do some obligatory scholar activities that nobody is particularly excited about but the real fun starts after. The girls of St Brigit’s are being joined by students – mainly boys – from other schools. They start drinking, intermingling and do things that teenagers normally do. But the fateful hour has already been set. And maybe some people should be more careful with what they say and do, maybe they shouldn’t bully and make fun of others – weaker – ones… Maybe deep inside each one of us lives a little devil that is only waiting to be set free. The consequences of which sometimes can be harmful, even mortal or soul destroying.

Lee Coffey’s Murder of Crows is a heartbreaking piece with an unbelievable twist at the end. It’s almost impossible to digest how much raw meaty parts there is in this slightly under one hour play. Under the superb direction of Karl Shiels, the gradation of the piece is perfectly timed: it starts off nicely and slowly with no preparation of what is yet to come. You think it might be just one of those hight school plays where students talk about their problems. But you couldn’t be further from being wrong. Lee Coffey wouldn’t be Lee Coffey if he hadn’t written a play that actually aims to touch on some of the most tabooed and controversial subjects that teenagers encounter in everyday life but are afraid to talk about.

The script is being strongly supported by the outstanding cast of three actresses, who absolute nail their parts. The characterization and physicality is incredibly strong and it goes to both the main parts that the girls are playing and the secondary characters. I don’t think I’ll be wrong if I say that the way Aisling O’Mara delivered the prophecy sent chills to everyone in the audience. An absolutely out-of-this-world experience that petrified and mesmerized at the same time.

In a play like Murder of Crows, visual aspects can be very important and influential. The two things that caught my eye straight away were, of course, the set (by Naomi Faughnan) and the lighting (by Laura Honan) designs. Quite simple but visually very strong mood setters that made the piece even more atmospheric.

So, if you are in a mood for something completely different this season, don’t be a Grinch and steal Christmas. Go to see Murder or Crows and get your dose of darkness and brutal reality! Runs in Theatre Upstairs until December 17th, for more info or to book tickets: http://www.theatreupstairs.ie/murder-of-crows

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The Complex: The Leaves of Heaven

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From big theaters to small lofts. From traditional spaces to the most unorthodox and challenging ones. Only a true theatre goer knows that the beauty of those unconventional places hides in the fact that every performance there is a technical, artistic and directorial surprise. The little spaces are usually the ones that invest all their heart and soul into staging a small scale but otherwise truly big productions. The Complex is a venue exactly like that. You are always in for a nice treat when you walk through the little side door on Little Green Street.

First going through an exhibition room beautifully decorated with candles and much needed winter warmth, you finally end up in the performing space, which is carefully designed to meet the needs of each performance separately. For The Leaves of Heaven the audience is seated on one side facing the stage. And from the second you walk in, all your attention is immediately and irreversibly drawn to the set (designed by Stephanie Golden and Justyna Marta Nowicka). But the real astonishment hits when you realise that the majority of the decoration and props – doll houses – is done with simple DIY tools like cardboard cut outs and paper. Placed on a side they create a somewhat nostalgic image of a child’s room. While on the other side we have a paper tree and a bench – a very symbolic representation of solitude and loneliness, the feeling of which consistently penetrates the story. To add a slightly edgy and even, perhaps, creepy angle to the piece a number of dummies inhabit the already eerie stage. In a corner is hanging a big full moon.

Balancing on the periphery of this world and the imaginary one, we finally meet Francie Brady (played by Brian Mallon) – the butcher boy. In The Leaves of Heaven Pat McCabe revisits one of his most famous characters but only as a ghost, amongst many others, who is there to document Brady’s story not to interfere with it. Following the horrifically abusive childhood and the murder it lead to, Francie ends up in the place where he was always meant to be: a criminal asylum. As his mental state deteriorates and the mind is being almost completely overtaken by profound delusion, it becomes more and more difficult to say which part of his story is real and which one is entirely a plot created by his ill imagination. The only one thing is constant: the apparition of our Holy Mother Mary (played by Mairead Devlin). She is the only one who never gave up on Francie.

Both Mallon and Devlin give an absolutely jaw-dropping performance. Brian’s impeccable spot-on boyish physicality and the impossibly tragic portrayal of the decay of the butcher boy’s mind allows the audience to see a total different side of Francie. He is frail, he is sad but, most of all, he is human. Both Mallon and Devlin play a whole range of different characters, all vary in age, gender and nationality, but every single one of them comes across as a complete real human being. You look at a dummies’ face and you don’t see a dummy, you see a person – a personality – hiding, at times being completely lost, behind it. The embodyment is so creepily exact sometimes that it’s hard to process the fact that there are only two actors on stage. Devlin’s breathtaking voice is indescribable and unreviewable. Her Ave Maria was pure heaven.

To round up the whole experience, the ultimate atmosphere setters are undoubtedly the lighting (by Conleth White) and the sound designs. Music is so perfect for the mood, it makes you cry. It pinches that other sense – hearing – that allows you to perceive Francie’s state of mind on a more profound level. The Leaves of Heaven is one of those plays where the props (by Stephanie Golden, Justyna Marta Nowicka, Sam Lambert, Derek Hathaway and Lewis McGee) are just as important as the actors. The incredible moon that would turn from peaceful white to ominous red was a whole being of its own adding a powerful eerie touch to the surrealism of it all.

McCabe’s play transfers you from a hopeless Irish small town (that the novel is set in) into an absolutely unique and colourful universe that reins in Francie’s mind. Just like their stories, all the characters’ voices are unique and easily distinguishable. And even though their life paths might be gruesome, at times appalling and even shocking, the beautiful storytelling of McCabe’s play allows the audience to surpass those actions of long ago. We witness the real, though heavily decaying, humanity behind the dummy’s mask.

The Leaves of Heaven is impossible not to connect with. The plot, the performances, the characterisation, the actors’ output and, of course, the directing (by Joe O’Byrne) of this production will leave you in an awe. This 90 min piece holds so much of dramatic tension and human emotion that  can only be experienced in a comfort of a safe intimate space like The Complex. The play runs till November 27th. For more info or to book tickets: https://www.tickets.ie/events.aspx/search?s=leaves or by calling (01) 544 6922

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The Peacock Theatre: The Remains of Maisie Duggan

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One door closes just for another one to fly open. 18 days of first -class theatre are in full swing with Dublin Theatre Festival.

While The Abbey stage is about to open with Frank McGuinness’s new musical Donegal, the Peacock is enjoying its second week of provincial Irish surrealism. A new play by Carmel Winters – The remains of Maisie Duggan – is probably the perfect link between the grotesque fringe and the modern theatre festivals.

As any proper Irish story, this sharp 90 min piece unravels the string of life and misfortunes of the Duggans, a family from North Cork. No family is a proper family unless there is a boiling mixture of hatred, resentment and well tucked deep down inside love for one another. The Duggans aren’t an exception. Maisie, the mother of the family (played by Bríd Ní Neachtain), has a car accident which makes her believe (or rather wish for) that she is dead. In a terrible confusion in the post office involving an Eastern European newbie Maisie’s long estranged daughter, who is now living with the Salvation Army in London, receives a message on Facebook which simply states that her mother had died and funeral arrangements would follow. Booking a three day trip to her long forgotten homeland, Kathleen (played by Rachel O’Brien) finally steps on the wet Irish soil. The mad mother, the resentful and abusive father (played by John Olohan) and the slightly autistic brother (played by Cillian Ó Gairbhí) might be exactly the reason why Kathleen left in the first place. But she too has demons of her own and unresolved issues that she chooses to run from.

I don’t think it would be an underestimation to say that The Remains of Maisie Duggan is quite a dark play. Unimaginably controversial things happen on stage in plain sight. To mention but a few perfect examples of the thin border between fringeness and social taboo: urination on a new grave and death of an animal (not a real one though, but still!).

The Remains of Maisie Duggan is, it’s safe to say, a play unlike any other. Even though not a very realistic one but it portrays the essence of life in rural Irish community, the mentality of the country folk and the secrets well hidden behind the closed doors. It shows the existence of people for whom death is a better looking option than life. The play bears no buried metaphors, it openly shocks, unnerves and staggers the wildest of imaginations.

With the atmospheric set design (by Fly Davis), the Duggans house represents the border between this and the other life. Half-burned, half-neglected, it’s a portal to the afterworld. And something’s telling us that for people like the Duggans it just might not be heaven. But anything is better than hell on earth.

The lighting design (by Sarah Jane Shiels) reminded me a lot of the one elaborated for The Gate’s current production of The Father. Unfortunately for this play, Rick Fisher’s idea worked quite nicely for the kind of the piece The Father is, while in the case of The Remains of Maisie Duggan, it mostly blinds people who are already in a deep awe from what’s happening on stage.

Otherwise, quite an interesting viewing, The Remains of Maisie Duggan, directed by Ellen McDougall, is a very brave piece of theatre that will challenge the views of some of the audience members. Runs in the Peacock Theatre until October 29th. For more info or to book a chance of peeping through the closed curtains: https://www.abbeytheatre.ie/whats_on/event/the-remains-of-maisie-duggan/

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The Teachers’ Club: Franner and Joey

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Somewhere in furtherest corner of Dublin North Side unofficial theatre district, there is a tiny performing space in the basement, where every night for the past week two partners in crime, Franner and Joey, find their shelter from a robbery gone horribly wrong.

Little Shadow Theatre Company presents Franner and Joey, a tragicomedy about two twenty-something best pals and drug addicts. Petite crime hooligans looking for a big fish in a small pond, they attempt to steal a bag from an old lady. She fights back. Joey (played by Sean Sheppard), already half-high on the next fix, doesn’t give a second thought and pushes the woman. She falls on the ground and smashes her head. This wasn’t the plan at all. People start gathering. The two friends have to flee the scene. They end up on the roof of one of the buildings. Waiting for the commotion to settle down and keeping an eye on the updates on the old woman’s health (which can quickly convert them from street junkies into murderers), Franner (played by Adam Tyrell) have the whole night to reminisce about their past, dream about their future and fear the ugly present.

Franner and Joey tells the kind of story that usually never gets heard. Who cares about the junkies? Who wants to hear their side of the story? Do they have any right to have their side? In Eddie Naughton’s intense 60 min piece we are faced with the reverse side of the coin. And it’s tragic. But so real and human. Among other things Franner and Joey touch on such subjects as child abuse (both physical and verbal), broken families, drugs and alcohol overdose, premature death, etc.

Performed in a thick and easily recognisable North Dublin inner city accent, both actors do an amazing job in portraying their characters: the voices, the movement and the physicality are on an admirably high level in this piece. Being hugely convincing all throughout the play, they undoubtedly succeed in bringing across the nastiness and the dislikability that people like Franner and Joey would normally evoke in others. At the same time, Tyrell and Sheppard give their characters a human side, a reason and a tiny sip of hope.

The perfect atmosphere has also been created thanks to the great lighting (by Alan Lynch) and set design (by Alan Lynch and Donna-Marie Mahony). I like to think that theatre is probably the only place where a rooftop can be built in a basement. The team worked out the tiniest details, graffiti on the walls were my personal favourite. As for the lighting, it ideally matched the mood, especially when it came to the most intense scenes.

An uneasy piece of emotionally charged theatre that is presented in a very enjoyable way, Franner and Joey (directed by Kieran McDonnell) runs in The Teachers’ Club until October 8th. For more info or to book tickets: https://www.facebook.com/frannerandjoey/

 

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Interview with Seanan McDonnell

Revolver, the new play by Sugar Coat Theatre Company, opened in Theatre Upstairs this Tuesday past. The play is in full swing now entertaining the audience and wowing the critics; and I got a great opportunity to interview Seanan McDonnell, who wrote the piece.

Tell me a little bit about yourself and your previous writing experience. What kind of writer are
you?  
I’ve been writing fairly consistently since I was a tot and my writerly sensibility probably calcified around age 8 watching The Simpsons and reading X-Men comics. In 3rd class, I remember keeping a notebook of short stories that were a mix of low fantasy children’s adventures and Bible fanfic.
My reading interests are pretty evenly split between genre writing – science fiction, horror, a little crime – and literary fiction and when I’m writing, I’m a magpie of my own interests. The best writing builds to ‘moments’, which I realise is a word that’s both plain and vague, but you know the ones I mean: the explanation for how the heist was pulled off, the closing of a causal loop in a time travel story, the memory of a piece of fruit that triggers a character to reflect upon a string of poor decisions. Great genre writing and great literary writing tend to go about creating them in very different ways: the former, usually, through story construction and the latter, usually, through burrowing deeper and deeper into its characters’ minds. But they’re not mutually exclusive, my very favourite writing marries them, and so when I write, I hope to build those ‘moments’ similarly.
Do you sit in the rehearsal room a lot?
I like to be a minimal presence in the rehearsal room. When it come to plays, you’re working in a collaborative medium so really the only functional approach for a writer (who has no interest in directing or acting) is to hand it over to the creative team and hope that the common understanding of the text’s scale and tone is close enough to your own that you don’t end up interrupting performances with “That’s not how you’re meant to say that line!”
How was the idea of Revolver born? 
I can’t really remember; I began the play five years ago. I wrote the female part for Charlene Craig, whom I’ve known since college, and whom I’m lucky enough to have play the part in the production. She swears that it was born from a suggestion I made in my old flat in London that we should do a play together but I have no recollection of that conversation. Her memory is better than mine though and it does make for a better story.
I do remember returning to the premise in my head because it offered a sustainable way to dramatise a pretty-difficult-to-dramatise aspect of human behaviour: the way the content of our opinions are overwhelmingly contingent not on the truth but on the perceived benefit it’ll bring us in whatever social set-up we assign most value. If you want to write a play about envy, you can write envious characters; if you want to write a play about malice, you can write a play about people who post Game of Thrones spoilers on Facebook; but if you want to write a play about people whose sense of self is ever-shifting, it’s hard to write credibly. People don’t speak about that and people aren’t conscious of it. But if characters can reset their encounters, you can have them passionately assume a position on a topic in one scene and then passionately assume the opposite position in the next. So, it’s a neat way of minimising the friction between the play’s character work and the play’s dramatic momentum and a neat way of having you question the reliability of the accounts the characters offer of themselves.
What was the biggest challenge while writing Revolver? 
The biggest challenge was creating dramatic tension when the characters are resetting the plot every five minutes. The temptation to have the play be a shapeless, discontinuous mass was high. But after a while, you spot ways to construct the story so you’re taking advantage of the structure. There were opportunities to create intrigue around the premise, to play with the differing levels of knowledge between the characters and the audience, to give the action urgency because it could be undone at any moment, and the writing was about finding those.
The editing was a nightmare though. The first version was significantly way too long and any time you wanted to make a cut, it meant looking at the entirety of the play: you’d remove some insignificant moment from scene 2 and then remember it was necessary for setting up a big moment in scene 8. That happened a lot.
What makes Revolver different from other plays? 
It’s science fiction. There are plays with science fiction premises but they’re usually called ‘absurdist’ or ‘playful’; this is unambiguously a piece of ‘science fiction’ about a technological advance and its consequences. It’s also a romantic comedy. Like everybody, I’m a big fan of the ‘Before Sunset’ movies: they’re wistful and charming but most importantly, I think, they follow the humps and hollows of real conversations. They strike this cadence that you’re at ease with at once and that was something I wanted to recreate, in parts, here. So, it’s a sci-fi rom-com and I don’t know any other plays, really, that are that.
What would you identify as the main message of the play? What do you want people to be thinking/feeling when they leave the theatre? 
The main message is “Our sense of self is a shaky thing and we’ll turn to anything, including kamikaze romantic relationships, to stave that notion off” but I hope that emerges from the drama rather than sits atop it. I really don’t like didactic drama. I’d hope, as hopelessly bourgeois as it is to say it, that people have a good time. It’s a comedy so I hope they laugh. It’s got revelations so I hope they gasp. And for all their flaws, the play’s two characters are motivated by desperation more than anything so I hope there’s sympathy for them. Mostly, I want people to come out feeling like it was 65 minutes of their life well spent.
Revolver, written by Seanan McDonnell and directed by Matthew Ralli, runs in Theatre Upstairs until June 4th. For more info or to book tickets: http://www.theatreupstairs.ie/revolver

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