BABY JEAN
BAC (Battersea Arts Centre), London SW11
Opened 19 March, 1996

The flagship production of BAC's Irish Festival is the world première of a play by Dermot Bolger which the Abbey Theatre, having commissioned it, decided not to stage for fear of arousing topical controversy.

Baby Jean may have had its genesis in the heated Irish debate on abortion, but its immediate concern is, in Bolger's words, with "a generation of Irish people now hitting the fifty mark who were schooled to be civil servants and so on in a new, gleaming Ireland, who have moved on and up in the world and learned to survive by sidestepping any divisive issue; now something which they'd always kept as an abstract matter suddenly becomes flesh and blood in their own living room." The horns of Paul and Anna Farrell's dilemma are the arrangement of an English abortion for their teenage daughter Jeanie (who never appears) and the punishment of Paul's colleague, the suave and insinuating Kevin Redmond, who may have raped her.

Bolger's writing is as usual a heightened, poetic version of naturalism, which Jim O'Hanlon's largely realistic direction does not always accommodate. It takes more than a lighting change to cater for the artifice of Anna's soliloquies as she packs in the bedroom whilst Paul and Redmond engage in verbal fencing bouts downstairs, but Bernadette Shortt gives it her best shot in the circumstances. The scenes of dialogue flow more easily, although in the second half, with Redmond bound and blindfold, we enter the now familiar confrontational-confessional territory of plays like Extremities and Death And The Maiden.

However, as the arguments intensify it becomes apparent that even for the Farrells the issue of the unborn child is secondary to that of their image on the suburban executive estate they inhabit. If they denounce Redmond, his crime (be it actual or statutory rape) becomes known and Jeanie will be haunted by a whispering campaign whether or not she terminates; the conflict becomes one of justice versus pragmatism. Bolger's bleak ending is a broadly predictable result of his perhaps excessive caution not to be seen to take an authorial side.

Christopher Dunne as Paul Farrell, dominated alternately by his wife and his subordinate, gives a performance of plausible spinelessness in which even his outbursts are ultimately ineffectual; Shortt is every inch the fiery Irish wife and mother. John Gunnery seems at times conscious that he is palpably too young to play 50-year-old Redmond, but is adroit at the character's smiling villainy. The play is, of course, both finely written and thought-provoking in several areas, but a feeling persists that both writer and director could have done with stoking the dramatic fire a little higher.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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