Tricycle Theatre, Kilburn
A revival of Roche’s 1993 play, with Roche himself in the cast, as the elderly crooner Josie. The play is set in Wexford, like the three previous plays of Roche’s that make up the so-called Wexford trilogy and that brought him to wide notice. I can imagine a latter-day Augusta Gregory saying to Roche, as she did to O’Casey, “Your strong point is characterization.” And, like O’Casey, Roche sets those characters going in an environment — here, a dingy cobbler’s shop — that is contextually right for the great and sudden variations of tone that are — were — O’Casey’s hallmark. And, also like O’Casey, Roche uses these contrasts expertly to show us sadness and happiness, foolishness and wisdom, self-preservation and self-destruction, from a certain distance. But Roche’s distance is not so great as the sharp-tongued O’Casey, who never forgets the big picture. For Roche, it seems that the picture is fluid and so, at least to some degree, hopeful.
The special quality of this play, beyond these things, is the music. The four men who make their livelihoods in the cobbling business have formed a kind of shoe-shop quartet (my term; Roche settles for “barbershop”) that goes singing in local competitions. They burst into song at likely but also at unlikely moments — and they are good. No pain or embarrassment in listening to them singing both pop favorites and the original love songs written for them by the sullen, unhappy protagonist, Terry, who seems to be the owner of the shop. This quartet becomes in Roche’s hands an efficacious agent of nostalgia, but of the unsentimental kind, ultimately: much of the play is a series of retrospections involving a troubled young woman, Nuala, who has fallen hard for Terry, who has lost his wife to his best friend and can’t make any commitments.
The plot is a little elusive, in fact, and we are sometimes so absorbed in character and situation that we forget or lose track of time. There are two scenes that seem particularly well calculated to focus us on the “present,” whenever that happens to be. These scenes, one in either act, are between Terry and his secret lover, Nuala, who comes to his shop after hours for love-making. Each time we see this, Nuala is turned away cruelly by Terry, and we see how painful a blow it is to her, abject though she is.
In fact, the prism of memory and the past causes some increasing shifting back and forth as the second act progresses. We gather that Nuala came to a sad end by throwing herself off a bridge, as she threatened to do, though in what seems to be another flashback — earlier? Or in some kind of time-warp — we see her dressed for a New Year’s Eve party and happy. Sudden spotlights, that die out just as suddenly, focus on a character back from the past — they die, as does Josie, and then return in a kind of spectral yet quite substantial way. It’s obviously intentional on Roche’s part, causing the past and present to swirl around one another in a calculated confusion that somehow resolves itself into a muted happy ending. Terry has, we see, at length taken up with a woman who has carried a flame for him for a long time — Breda, who has a shop, a beauty shop, across the way, and who at length insists that it is time for them to come out in the open. She obviously cares for him deeply, and at the same time is realist enough to say to him, “You’d better come along with me. I’m the best you’re going to find.”
It is easy to get bogged down, as I have here, in the details of the plot. In fact, the action is quite fluid, and we find it extremely entertaining, for its comedy, and endearing, for its pathos and its deft way of skirting the sentimental and the maudlin. Roche doesn’t have the power and the trenchant observational faculties of an O’Casey, but he does have a very good eye for concrete character and a finely honed sense of timing. The pace of this play is just right. And the director, Robin Lefiore, does not hesitate to let the characters have their heads, and to play a quiet, slow scene quietly and slowly. In an interview posted in the lobby Roche says he has to trust his director, and he trusts this one completely. You can see why. The Tricycle’s range is fairly wide, but they keep returning with considerable success to contemporary Irish drama. And the audiences, many of whom live locally in this, one of the most predominantly Irish of London neighborhoods, are very enthusiastic about what they see. There were so many Irish faces there tonight it wasn’t hard for me to imagine I was back in Dublin at the Abbey, or in Galway at the Druid. Nice, to be able to do this and be back in Covent Garden by 11:00 p.m.