An old couple sit in a pair of armchairs at the close of day. They talk as we presume they always have, sniping at each other with cheap shots and low blows, anything that could cause the other pain. The story of ‘Conservatory’ is a set in a sun room that doesn’t get any sun. A fitting analogy for this couple who have lived together for many years, but possibly never loved each other. We are never given the names of the protagonists in this play, only He (Stephen Brennan) and She (Deirdre Donnelly).
Brennan is the more damaged of the two, with a lifetime of ‘roguery’ behind him, which involved drinking, infidelities and violence towards his family. Donnelly is only guilty of not ending the relationship years previously, and instead choosing to enable his life style of alcoholism and abuse. She seems to have lived a quiet life, pretending to the outside world that all is well.
The couple have a long, complicated history, and there is a steady leak of details over the course of the play, as we slowly piece together the jigsaw of their lives. The opening sequences of the play are tight and very well written, as the argument begins. The discussion focuses on subjects any couple could speak of, the crossword and the happenings at the local church.
When ‘He’ arrives with a cardboard box, this leads to a failed explanation of ‘Schrödinger’s cat‘, a thought experiment that is used to show how something can be alive and dead at the same time. The box is there throughout, with its contents only revealed towards the end, causing the hurt that ‘He’ intended.
The set contains a couple of arm chairs and two tables, one with a dictionary that is frequently consulted. It is a deliberately empty space, that conveys the bleakness of their world, but there is a surprising reveal towards the end. The light and sound effects work well also, with moments of isolation of both characters captured.
This play set out to convey a couple damaged beyond repair and possibly achieves this too well, as what we are left with is a bleak vision of a world you could only briefly visit. The two actors perform admirably, with Brennan delighting in his many well crafted put downs and comments on the inadequacies of the world around him. Donnelly plays a more muted part, she’s long used to his abuse and hardly hears it, but is well capable of taking up her needle, when required. It is a challenging night of theatre that gives an insight into a relationship that should have long since been put out of its misery.
Conservatory runs at the Peacock Theatre until April 12th.
Stephen Brennan – He
Deirdre Donnelly – She
Michael West – Writer
Michael Barker Caven – Director
Liam Doona – Set and Costume Design
Kevin McFadden – Lighting Design
Philip Stewart – Composer and Sound Design