To many at the Old Vic, the ending of Frank McGuinness's beautiful new play Dolly West's Kitchen may seem unwarrantedly mawkish. After sensitively, unshowily unfolding three love stories (one of them gay) involving English and American servicemen and a family in Buncrana, Co. Donegal, during the latter half of World War II, McGuinness ends with Dolly and her beloved Alec singing to each other the entirety of "I Vow To Thee, My Country", that most sanctimoniously sentimental of English hymns. But this sentimentality is largely confined to English listeners. Imagine the audience at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin (where this production was Patrick Mason's swansong as artistic director), a venue which continues to take issues of Irish nationality passionately seriously; imagine Irish ears hearing such an inextricably English anthem; imagine them, further, hearing it in a context which makes plain that it used not as a direct comment upon nationality at all, but as an affirmation of individual loyalties one to another across such a yawning divide, and mirrored to a greater or lesser extent in each of the play's other strands. Imagine the subversiveness of such a rendition. Seen properly, McGuinness's move is not trite but audaciously eloquent.
McGuinness is not subtle in introducing and maintaining his themes. He does not need to be: he writes directly, honestly and affectingly of family, of all kinds of insecurities (principally brother-in-law Ned's worry that he will never be enough for his wife Esther), of the pressures of imposed roles from spinster on the shelf (Dolly) to young military nationalist zealot (brother Justin), and of the myriad pitfalls of sexuality whether suppressed (Justin's homosexuality, brought to his own recognition by the arrival of a screaming Manhattan queen) or indulged (Esther's dalliance with the other G.I.). He makes it seem incidental that amid all this he also articulates the conflicting truths behind Ireland's neutrality in what was there called "the Emergency", both the anti-Britishness and the recognition of the moral importance of defeating Hitler. At the centre of it all is the discreetly scheming, endlessly wisecracking, bluntly outspoken matriarch Rima West, played gloriously by Pauline Flanagan (although hardly more glorious than any of the other eight performances on stage). The playwright has admitted that Rima is effectively his own mother; if his portrait is accurate, then McGuinness mère was evidently both the "bad bitch" that Rima dubs herself and a remarkable, caring woman.
Saying any more would simply boil down to listing all those involved with the production. This is a joy of a play, which does not pretend to profundity but in taking its own honest course achieves at least as much depth and potency as any new play you are likely to see for quite a while.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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