Rosaleen Linehan, Catherine Walsh, Ruth McCabe, Mikel Murfi
Enda Walsh may have penned the screenplay for sparsely scripted recent Bafta-winner Hunger with Steve McQueen, but the lauded Irish playwright’s latest show to hit London is anything but light on dialogue.
Featuring a trio of lonely, desperate women who live near the receding cliffs of a remote Irish village and constantly re-enact a night of doomed teenage romance with the aid of a foley soundtrack, pink ra-ra skirts and cheap lipstick, it’s a dizzying meditation on lost chances, youthful dreams and the power of storytelling.
“By their nature people are talkers. You can’t deny that, says sixty-something Breda (Rosaleen Linehan) into a wall at the start of a typically warped monologue.
It’s the play’s opening line, but also serves as something of a mission statement we soon learn it’s a spiel she’s repeated thousands of times before.
And just as McQueen’s repetition of visual motifs in Hunger the excrement smeared cell walls, the bleach trickling down the H Block corridors had an oddly hypnotic quality, so too does Breda and fellow sexagenarian Clara’s (Ruth McCabe) repeated retelling of their fateful night at the New Electric Ballroom slowly weave a spell on the viewer.
The two sisters expect their first proper kiss from showband crooner Roller Royle. Only Breda is successful, but after she’s spurned in the car park for a Doris Day lookalike both leave disappointed and demoralised. Ada (Catherine Walsh), who’s in her 40s, has heard the story as long as she can remember. Nowadays, when she’s not keeping her head down during lonely shifts at the fish factory, she helps in its retelling.
It is, I’m sure you’ll agree, a pretty fucked up state of affairs. But, like most of Walsh’s work it’s often absurdly funny, thanks to his blisteringly black yet strangely lyrical dialogue. Credit too to Linehan, McCabe and Walsh for drawing out comic yet sympathetic performances and the writer’s mischievous direction under the auspices of Galway’s Druid company.
Walsh’s previous London show also focused on three characters entombed from the outside world and stuck in a bizarre cycle of re-living a momentous event from their past. In The Walworth Farce, which finished a successful run at the National’s Cottesloe last November (and which The New Electric Ballroom serves as a companion piece to), a bullying father locks his two grown sons in their high-rise flat and forces them to repeatedly rerun a fictional version of their escape from Cork to south London.
Paradoxically, while The Walworth Farce‘s premise required more of a leap of faith from the audience (subsequent unnerving comparisons to the Austrian cellar case notwithstanding) it to me felt more real in comparison to Ada, Breda and Clara’s ostensibly more plausible but ultimately dreamlike existence not helped by the futuristic metallic set which serves as their front room. It also had a lasting visceral punch its female companion piece lacks.
In the end, the Cork threesome’s awful existence is shaken off course by the arrival of an outsider. Likewise, the fishman Patsy, played with fraught brio by the excellent Mikel Murfi, seems to promise an escape of sorts for Ada.
But will she act on it?
“Don’t you feel safer inside than out? asks Breda, sounding both concerned and teasing.
As an audience member, you certainly won’t. But if you go with Walsh’s distorted scenarios and characters, you’ll reap heady rewards.