The Train – Abbey Theatre – Review by P McGovern
Photos by Ros Kavanagh
If the coinage of standing ovations has been debased by the way it is often accorded by Dublin audiences to mediocre performances in the Concert Hall and theatres, there is no doubting that the cheering standing ovation on the opening night of The Train was well deserved. This is a vital piece of theatre, surveying the extraordinary changes in the role and status of women, in social legislation and attitudes, from the nineteen seventies to the present.
With book and lyrics by Arthur Riordan and music by Bill Whelan, its point of departure, and arrival, is the furore surrounding the train taken by members of the Irish Women’s Liberation Movement to Belfast in 1971 to import contraceptives “in direct contravention of the will of god” – and of Irish law. A ‘chorus’ of five young women actors – Sophie Jo Watson, Karen McCartney, Kate Gilmore, Danielle Galligan and Lisa Lambe – combine narration, choral commentary and participation in the action. Their solo songs and duets provide some of the most moving moments, laughter giving way to quiet introspection, reminding us of the grim reality of women’s lives in those days – and for a long time afterwards.
Lynne Parker’s outstanding direction welds together Riordan’s witty lyrics – mordant without being bitter or overblown – with Whelan’s wonderful score, combining elements of jazz, rock and mainstream musical. The whole piece is informed by a masterly sense of when enough is enough, emotion held in check, never tottering over into sentiment.
‘The plain people of Ireland’ are embodied in Adam and Aoife, a couple who already have the two children they can afford. Now they face a dilemma about what to do about … well, you know… all that stuff. Their embarrassment in trying to even discuss sex or their intimate lives captures the unease surrounding sexual issues in an Ireland where the clammy hand of the priest fitted neatly into the politician’s glove. With pronouncements by bishops, speeches from politicians, extracts from the constitution and Irish legislation, Riordan does not have to stray far from reality to make his point, although many younger people may feel they are watching a world pitched somewhere between outlandish historical fiction and an episode of Father Ted. A measure of how deep the established norms ran, is reflected in how even the women liberators themselves are briefly hesitant about the desirability of mixing with ‘unmarried mothers’ and the possibility of ‘lesbians’ joining the ranks.
The play never settles for heavy-handed polemic. On the contrary, it is endlessly entertaining and frequently hilarious. The role of the church is embodied in Darragh Kelly’s priest, at one point ensconced in the marital bed, outlining what is permissible between man and wife in ‘conjugal relations’. It is a first-rate performance. Louis Lovett and Clare Barrett as Adam and Aoife hit a perfect balance as the couple trying to live ‘good’ lives while giving expression to their natural sexual instincts. Their quandary is deeply affecting and comical at the same time, capturing the confusion and frustration of married couples of the early seventies. As they hold up their lived experience against the light of religious prohibition, they stumble across the conclusion that perhaps “we are a nation of hypocrites”. It is one of the funniest moments in an evening where there is lots to laugh at and as much again that is serious and sobering.
In a neat device, Ross Gaynor’s younger priest and Kelly’s older model look into the seeds of time and foresee some of the awful things that may happen if these women succeed in their attempt to import condoms and such things. There could be divorce, even queers might become acceptable.
The cobwebs that have blown off our national theatre recently are swept out the door with this production. If you may hear an Ochón, Ochón as you leave the theatre it is from the ghosts of the old Abbey and the grave of John Charles McQuaid. You will hear only cheers from the quick and the living. The show continues at the Abbey until April 15th
Danielle Galligan – Cast
Lisa Lambe – Cast
Karen McCartney – Cast
Sophie Jo Wasson – Cast
Clare Barrett – Cast
Ross Gaynor – Cast
Kate Gilmore – Cast
Darragh Kelly – Cast
Louis Lovett – Cast
Cathal Synnott – Music Director
Joan O’Clery – Costume Designer
Ciaran Bagnall – Set and Lighting Designer
Arthur Riordan – Book and lyrics by
Bill Whelan – Music by
Lynne Parker – Director