Tricycle Theatre, London NW6
Opened 11 July, 1995

Novelist, columnist and screenwriter (and elder brother of Sinéad) Joseph O'Connor's first stage play is an object demonstration that even the most hackneyed ingredients can be recombined to compelling effect in the hands of a talented craftsman.

The Doyles are your off-the-shelf dysfunctional family of Irish intelligentsia, gathered together for the funeral of their poet-teacher father and a batch of the inevitable conflicts and revelations. Younger sister Medbh (Kathy Downes), a bohemian would-be thesp who still lives at home, is joined by her tight-assed sister Catherine (Deirdre O'Kane) - back from New York with a good-hearted but dim Galway Protestant boyfriend in tow and Paul Hickey's fearsome brother Johnny, an incendiary blend of Jacobean malcontent and Angry Young Man, while Anne Kent as long-suffering but solid-as-a-rock mother Moya tries with only partial success to keep the lid on the familial pressure-cooker. Even the deceased Enda turns up on a series of video diaries, in a cheeky update of Beckett's Krapp.

The characters read like a checklist of contemporary Irish family drama, as do the themes: adultery, low self-esteem, pregnancy, the Irish diaspora and a liberal sprinkling of knowing literary references (Moya's loving brood refer to her as "Juno" and "the mother of all the Behans"). But O'Connor's script and Jim Culleton's finely judged production for the Irish company Pigsback transcend the pitfalls of formulaic theatre to create an evening which stimulates the head, the heart and the laughter muscles alike.

The show's saving graces are two-fold. A healthy but not overpowering dose of Dublin's major invisible product, scabrous wit, beautifully counterbalances the sentimentality and melodrama which could so easily have bogged matters down. Not for nothing does the family have the same name as northside Dublin's foremost modern literary son.

The cast, too, give flawlessly pitched performances with only minor exceptions: Hickey could usefully lose a few of his wild gesticulations, and if the two brief scenes of flashback to Enda and Moya's courtship must be included at all, a little more differentiation of character would be helpful from O'Kane and Barry Barnes as they double roles. But these are minor blemishes on an admirable display both of solo and ensemble playing.

Red Roses And Petrol inhabits similar territory to that of the clichéd "NW3 play" (a Ballsbridge play, perhaps?), but is thankfully devoid of the solipsistic self-regard of that sub-genre. Its characters, though not fully rounded, interact as individuals as well as types. O'Connor and Pigsback have taken a second-hand skeleton and miraculously grafted onto it a deal of mighty appealing flesh.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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