The Puffin’s Nest – Theatre Review by Frances Winston
The New Theatre, 43 East Essex Street, Temple Bar, Dublin 2.
Monday 12th – Saturday 24th January @ 7.30pm nightly.
Tickets €15/12. Groups €10.
Set in a comfortable cottage overlooking Dublin Bay this opens with middle aged couple Harold and Jane bickering about both his drinking and their actress daughter Jennifer who has just announced she is pregnant. However they are not alone as a mysterious woman skulks in the shadows. Racist Harold is unhappy that Jennifer’s baby may be mixed race and storms out to attend an awards luncheon but tragedy strikes and he soon finds himself an observer of his wife and daughter as they pick apart the bones of his life while he is reunited with Minerva, the mystery woman who has been haunting him for years having been deeply in love with him in her youth. As Jane and Jennifer bond over long held secrets, Harold gets a few home truths from Minerva and he doesn’t necessarily like what he hears.
The promotional material for this play makes it look like a comedy but it is far from it. Heaviness looms over it from the off from Harold and Jane’s frosty relationship to Jenny’s contemptuous back and forth’s with her father. The writer Oliver McQuillan has thrown possibly every conceivable family revelation at this play – I won’t list them to avoid spoilers – but it all feels like too much. Rather than focus on one or two things the revelations just keep coming to the point that they lose a lot of impact. The plot to this is quite complex as it is and in introducing more and more elements it weakens what has gone before. There is even underlying religious tension that gets lost in the midst of all the revelations.
All four actors give good performances but they never really seem connected to each other. This is excusable in the case of Barbara Dempsey’s Minerva since she is supposed to be a ghost and therefore somewhat detached and she does indeed have a couple of powerful monologues. However, you never get a sense of family, dysfunctional or otherwise, from Ann Russell, Tom Laidlaw or Ellen Cloney as Jane, Harold and Jenny. Each gives a good standalone performance but their scenes as a family unit just don’t gel.
Some of this is down to the writing. While this is a really good premise Act I has quite a long build up and repetition before you get to the heart of the story and the bulk of the action happens in Act II (which unconventionally is longer than Act I). A lot of the material in Act I could be condensed giving more time to develop ideas later on. Also, in Act I Minerva is floating wistfully about but there is no reference to her whatsoever. We are left to assume that she is something to do with Harold but we learn nothing until Act II which makes it all a bit anticlimactic.
This is a good idea that needs a bit more development. Most people can relate to being haunted by a past love but that idea is possibly the least explored here. Equally we all understand family tensions but even an episode of EastEnders doesn’t come with as many family revelations as this play. Sometimes a couple of things explored well are better than opening every single can of worms. Indeed at times this feels like two plays in one, so detached in Minerva’s story from the family story. Not as spooky as its premise suggests this has potential but needs a bit more work.
The Puffin’s Nest is at The New Theatre until January 24th.