Little seems to exaggerate the success or failure of a theatrical piece as starkly as writing it in a series of monologues. Brian Friel's Faith Healer works magnificently, to a degree of which Wallace Shawn's The Designated Mourner can barely dream. Conor McPherson's This Lime Tree Bower also comes out on top; it may not be a play, but it's a damn fine story.
Frank works in the family "chipper" in a quiet seaside town south of Dublin; his younger brother Joe nurses a non-sexual schoolboy infatuation with the charismatic but significantly named Damian; their sister's boyfriend Ray is an arrogant, philandering philosophy don. Each has his own wants – teenage love, intellectual glory or the chance to take the local shark down several pegs; Frank and Ray show holes at their respective cores, Joe feels a similar lack which is part of the adolescent experience. Turn and turn about, they give their individual accounts of a week in which Joe sees Damian's true colours, Ray disgraces himself and Frank pulls off an unexpectedly high-yield robbery.
The strength of McPherson's piece (which he also directs), however, is the ordinary detail, the pettiness surrounding the crucial events. Days, and nights of dream and reverie, are recounted with an understated attention reminiscent of fellow Irishman Neil Jordan's early short stories. The laughs come not from jokes as such, but from matter-of-fact accounts of everyday goings-on: Joe, describing his attempts to look unconcerned in the company of a couple of girls, remarks simply, "I fiddled with my [bicycle's] brakes, and broke them." It is McPherson's deep feeling for the perfection of a story well told which gives the evening its quiet joy.
The cast of last year's successful Dublin Festival production reprise their roles with, for the most part, unfussy assurance. Ian Cregg's Joe is impassioned but diffident, a reserved lad at that difficult age. Conor Mullen is all hands and easy mid-Atlantic Irish accent, giving Ray the air of a character in a late Woody Allen movie (although it may only be coincidence that the great philosopher Ray so dreams of torpedoing carries Allen's real surname, Konigsberg). Niall Shanahan as Frank sounds tired and fatalistic, yet Shanahan is the only one of the trio who visibly (though discreetly) listens and reacts to the others' monologues – in fact, the only brief exchange in two hours comes when Frank remarks at the end of one of Ray's sequences, "I never heard that"; "I was saving it," replies Ray, and with that Frank begins his monologue proper.
After the last six months or so, some London theatregoers may consider themselves "Irished out". It would be a pity to pass up such a little gem as This Lime Tree Bower (the Bush's last production before it closes for a six-month refurbishment) for so specious a reason.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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