Eight years ago, I fell in love. I didn't have a clear run of it – my beloved had many other admirers – and in the nature of things it couldn't really last, but while it did, oh, it was glorious. Since then I've seen my inamorata once, from a distance; she seemed unsure of herself, a little diminished somehow. But last weekend we met again, and the warmth, familiarity and even the ghost of that first magical spark were still there, together with the poignant knowledge that, after a few brief hours, we each had to move on our separate way. The object of my affections was a trilogy of plays written by Billy Roche and set in his home town of Wexford, and such little, unimportant heartbreaks are his territory.
The constituent parts of The Wexford Trilogy were premièred at the Bush between 1988 and 1991, and the entire trilogy put on show the following year, constituting one of the first wave crests of the current high tide of Irish playwriting. This production, by the Oxford Stage Company and the Tricycle in the latter's Kilburn space, is the first revival of the whole thing, with single plays performed on weeknights and all-day weekend sessions of the lot. The heartbeat of Roche's plays continues to sound loud and affecting as we taste the tang of three progressive flavours of unfulfilment: the directionless railing of young tearaway Jimmy in the gaming club in A Handful Of Stars, the continuing legacy of an old adulterous elopement in the betting shop of Poor Beast In The Rain, the foredoomed yet life-changing love affair of no-longer-young sacristan Artie in Belfry. The order in which the plays were written, and are staged on omnibus days, is the best one in which to see them, but it matters little. The crucial point is that Wilson Milam's production gives Roche's beautifully sensitive and observant creations, these small-town characters and events, their full human weight – less would be contemptuous, more crippling. Milam also allows a subtle shift in balance between the component plays: where once Belfry had been a climactic minor-key movement, now it is the legacy of the past in Poor Beast around which the trilogy pivots.
As an old jobbing muso, Roche's sense of the musical components of the plays continues to be well honoured, as snatches of songs from the Stones to Nirvana peep round the edges of the action. His own words carry the self-effacing heft of the lyrics of one of the master singer-songwriters. A dimension is added to the experience for old Wexford hands by seeing two of the original company move into roles one slot older, as it were, than in their previous appearances; in particular Gary Lydon, once a menacing force of nature as Jimmy in Handful, now modulates to the ambitionless Conway and the slowly awakening Artie in Belfry, as his younger roles are taken on by a rumbustious Peter McDonald. Hugh O'Conor and Elaine Symons step delightfully into the ranges of shoes first occupied by the youthful Aidan Gillen and Dervla Kirwan respectively, and Michael McElhatton is especially touching as a trio of various kinds of failures who each retain an impressive dignity. On first viewing, Roche's works were hailed as classics-to-be; they can now be seen to be coming into their birthright.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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