Town is Dead – Peacock Theatre – Review by P McGovern
Written by Philip McMahon, with music by Raymond Scannell, Town is Dead touches on a wide range of topical social issues: domestic violence, fractured families, the ravages caused by addiction, emigration and the dislocation that accompanies it when the novelty wears off and isolation sets in, homophobia, money-lenders and the uprooting of communities as the real estate men move in. It’s like a checklist for a frenetic week of phone-in radio shows. Possibly the play-with-music casts its net too wide but all of the issues arise from the life experience of the characters, in a way that somehow escapes cliché and is both moving and convincing.
The format of some recitative-type singing, occasional rather than constant is unusual but it works, thanks to what is obviously a close collaborative relationship between the two creators. Taken is isolation, some of the lyrics would be simply mawkish:
“You’re all I’ve got / You’re everything / You’re all I’ve got /The start and the end”.
Out of context and rendered, say, country style, this would be intolerable stuff. However, the haunting, restrained music deflects any danger of it becoming cloying.
As she faces eviction from her small flat in Dominick St. to make way for an office development, Ellen has little to pack apart from a few black bags of clothes and tins of beans. Her life is like a compression of every social and personal deprivation you can imagine. Yet there is more to her than a moan; she is resilient, clear-eyed and hard-nosed but always human. Her sarcastic deadpan wit, her former marriage to a man who couldn’t cope emotionally or practically, her reaching for the comfort of whiskey, all of this recalls a few O’Casey heroines, somewhere between Juno and Bessie Burgess. Barbara Brennan has the measure of the part and never misses a beat. Sure, there are things that smack of the improbable, mentioning the Georgian cornices, checking a dictionary (albeit a Collins Gem Pocket version) to look up her sister’s use of the word ‘interim’. The plug that has to be changed from heater to kettle and back again as either is needed, calls to mind a Goons sketch about competing claims on poverty. However, inflated emotion or any slide towards self-pity are held firmly in check by the grim humour that permeates the piece.
Will, her dead son, Conall Keating is a very real presence, emerging into the action and dissolving as the mood requires. He has very little text but leaves a strong mark. He is an actor whose career will be worth watching. Kate Gilmore’s Katarina (“not an immigrant, a refugee”) has absorbed the inner-city lingo of her adopted hometown, complete with the blunt four-letter expletives. While her part may be borderline caricature, it is an excellent performance, with the right balance between energy and restraint. Fia Huston-Hamilton is perfectly cast as Will’s half-sister, son of Ellen’s now dead, long-departed husband, Sean. He always got mad at the mention of Ireland, she tells us. Ireland taught him about survival, not happiness. Apprehensive and sensitive to the effects of the surprise she is springing on Barbara, she is nonetheless determined to find out what she can about Will and reclaim something of her own background. Huston-Hamilton navigates the range of emotions to perfection and completes a top class cast.
What the play may lack in novelty or originality of theme, it more than compensates for in authenticity and integrity. The Abbey management is to be commended on giving a platform to this kind of work. More please.