Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh
August, 2001

The Traverse Theatre's Edinburgh Fringe programme often displays Irish work with almost the same dedication it does Scottish. This year, Enda Walsh's bedbound, although a distinct falling-off from the electric thrill of Disco Pigs, has garnered a Fringe First, and has now been joined by a brace of Irish pieces just as impressive.

Morna Regan's first play Midden, staged by Rough Magic, is a "three generations of women" tale set in her native Derry city. After fifteen years establishing a successful designer clothing company in America, Ruth suddenly decides to come home to her defensively flinty mother, too-cheerful sister and increasingly senile grandmother. Regan overwrites the occasional phrase, but this is more than offset by the blunt Derry argot and the gradual unravelling of the skein of family secrets and deceptions. It is curiously refreshing, too, that the hook on which all this conflict hangs is simply money, a family rainy-day fund that was never used.

Lynne Parker's production alternately fizzes and seethes as required, and is incidentally staged on the most completely practical kitchen set I have ever seen: when, in the performance I saw, a glass was accidentally smashed on the floor, they even managed to conjure up a dustpan and brush to clear it away. Most of all, though, Regan's play is an illuminating look at the flipside of the Irish emigrant experience: the sensation that returning even swathed in success offers no remedy for the circumstances which drove one away in the first place.

In Traverse Two, Michael West's Foley offers another seldom-seen alternative view, a monologic portrait of the final gasp of the old Protestant ascendancy in the "big house". Andrew Bennett portrays the last of his line, suffused with a hatred both of his family heritage and of his own rebellion against it (marrying a Catholic and converting). For the first quarter of this 80-minute piece, I found the character's self-deprecation and self-conscious digression on the artificial side, but West's writing and Bennett's performance sustain and gradually intensify these notes until, instead of being a distraction from George Foley the fourth and last's unreliable reminiscences, they are revealed to lie at the heart of his personality and his relationship to his life: they are not defence strategies, but candidly displayed wounds. As with Novecento in the International Festival, the telling of the tale quietly but powerfully shows us the teller as well.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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