The tagline on the programme says it all: ‘Two women. Similar in age. About to die. That’s where the similarity ends.’ But if you missed this, not to worry, because almost every line, stage direction and prop in ‘A Nice Bed To Die In’ reminds the audience, over and over again, of the age-old dichotomy that the play presents us with: glass half-empty or full. And it is proper glass warfare in Derek Masterson’s play, as two terminally ill older women with wildly different perspectives on life are forced to spend their last days together in a shared hospice room.
Angela (Phyllis Carthy) is dying alone, an angry mess of a woman who wears her self-pity like a coat of barbed wire, spurning all offers of kindness from her patient nurse (Erika Roe). Abandoned by her husband, rejected by her sons, Angela repeats the mantra of Mrs Justice Fintan King in the opening scene, clinging to past notions of grandeur, unwilling to accept how far she has fallen.
Enter salt of the earth Marie (Bréid Morris), a garrulous Dub whose friendly and open nature – and apparent ability to roll with whatever terminal punches she’s dealt – act as a foil to her roommate’s whinging and whimpering. And so the scene is set for Angela to be de-wired by her new neighbour’s big heart, offering both women the chance at one final redemptive friendship before shuffling off the mortal coil.
If this review sounds glib, it is largely a reflection of how the play itself treated its serious themes of alcoholism, child abuse, murder and death. Spilled out as easy yarns or unrealistic confessions, often in clichéd dialogue reminiscent of a self-help manual (‘there’s always time to be a better person’, ‘I’ve so much bitterness inside me’), the stories of these two women fail to convince. Leaving aside the unlikely coincidence of a certain solicitor/son, and the melodramatic violent outburst from his brother, the relationship between the two main characters zig zags at a strange pace, culminating in an unconvincing revelatory turnaround that makes you long for Angela’s earlier demands and rancour.
It’s not all bad. The cast carries this heavy-handed play admirably in the small, intimate New Theatre space, with Phyllis Carthy rendering particularly well the relentless misery of someone desperate to expel the hatred within. Marie’s relationship with her children (Alison Fitzpatrick and Daniel Monaghan) offers light relief and decent banter, bringing some of the funnier lines of the play and genuinely touching moments as a daughter considers the loss of a much loved mother. There are songs between the scenes, some of which work better than others, Simon & Garfunkel’s Sound of Silence echoing eerily into the darkness. Liane McCarthy’s lighting of the hospice is clever, the hazy yellow reminding us that disease is everywhere. Thoughtful props reveal much about the two women – Marie’s leopard skin robe and family photos stand in contrast to Angela’s Brown Thomas bag and silk dressing gown. Props are used as well to up-end our preconceptions, with working class
Marie’s copy of Ulysses outshining Mrs Justice Fintan King’s gossipy magazines. Kudos to both Carthy and Morris, who manage to bring life and credibility to the roles despite the one-dimensional aspects of their respective characters. Overall, the oppositions are simply too stark to be real. Can Marie actually be so nice, so caring, so saintly? Does Angela only have blame and bile and bitterness left? Revelations about the characters’ pasts are there to deflate this set up, but it is only because we are told there is more to these two women than meets the eye that we believe it. Little on stage actually shows it.
A Nice Bed To Die In by Derek Masterson – until Aug 17th at the New Theatre @ 7.30pm – Tickets: €15 / 12 (conc).
Review by Sarah Gilmartin.