National Theatre (Lyttelton), London SE1
Opened 12 July, 2005

All Brian Frielís plays are set in and around Ballybeg, a fictional village in Co. Donegal. All human life is there.  In The Home Place, currently in the West End, he looks at the Protestant Anglo-Irish in the ďbig houseĒ, the landlords who ran the district.  But in his 1978 play Aristocrats, the gentry are Catholic, itís the present day, theyíve fallen on hard times and the big house is barely still standing.

Friel is often compared to Chekhov. This piece has hints of the Russian masterís plays Three Sisters, in its family structure, and The Cherry Orchard, as the house is lost to them.  Also like Chekhov, he never overwrites.  Drama, for him, isnít about big actions or heroes: itís about ordinary events in the lives of ordinary people. The point is that ordinary events are still full of importance in ordinary lives.

Tom Cairnsí production could never be accused of betraying Frielís low-key writing by ratcheting matters up a bit.  Indeed, for the first half or so of the play, thatís the problem. Things are taken at an unforced pace Ė entirely faithful to the writing, but they could do with a bit of a directorial gee-up.  By the time things start happening to any serious degree, thereís a danger that we may already have lost interest.

Gina (Our Friends In The North) McKee as eldest sister Judith is excellently pent-up: tied to the house and her invalid father, but not resenting it.
Well, maybe just a little, secretly.  Dervla Kirwan, no longer quite the young flower of TVís Goodnight Sweetheart, almost equals McKee as Alice, an alcoholic in an uncertain marriage with Peter McDonaldís Eamon.  The venerable T.P. McKenna has a cameo.

The finest performance is from Andrew Scott as Casimir, the cracked brother, honest and true of heart but never quite facing the world squarely on.  Itís a keenly judged production (and beautifully designed, also by Cairns), but to stick with it through the long, slow start requires more commitment and trust than many may feel ready to give.  Maybe wait till autumn, when the NT tours Frielís masterpiece Translations.

Written for Teletext.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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