Happy Birthday Jacob – The New Theatre – Review by David Minogue.
Until August 26th
Happy Birthday Jacob is the first play by Michael Marshall. It was first presented as a rehearsal reading as part of Druid Debuts in the Galway Arts Festival in 2013. In February of this year it was performed in the New Theatre and this revised production is now being presented at The New Theatre for a more extended run.
It recounts the days prior to Jacob’s 18th birthday and begins at a time when he and his ten year old brother Lucas who after a seven year period of abandonment by their mother Mary are left to fend for themselves when their father also leaves. While their father’s return is uncertain and his presence is felt throughout the play it is the return of their mother Mary that is the key catalyst in this time of their lives. The fourth character in the play is Terry, a teenage neighbour who acts as a friend and a link to the outside community and who tries to be a mother figure to the two brothers.
In the original production Michael Marshall was both writer and director. In this revised production Laura Bowler directs with the BAKRU Productions crew working in association with The New Theatre. Both the performances of Finian Duff Lennon as Lucas and Karen Kelly as Terry were highly commended in a review on this website of the play’s first run in February and they both return in their respective roles. Additionally in this revised production Stephen O’Leary plays Jacob and Michelle Costello plays his mother Mary.
The play is set in a kitchen with the table and chairs at centre stage, with a table cloth concealing a fairy light lit den that Lucas retreats into at key times throughout the play. Every bit of the set, which was designed by Ciara Murnane, is utilised in relevance to the play’s narrative from the photos and drawings on the dresser, to the window on the kitchen’s back door and the calendar where the days before Jacob’s birthday are marked off.
While no year or time period is specifically stated the time and space appears to be that of the 1990s. This is conveyed through elements of the set such as a magazine or in the clothing of each of the characters and costume designer Mary Sheehan adds a complete feeling of authenticity especially in the clothing worn by Terry and Mary.
The writing by Michael Marshall was fluidly conveyed, especially in balancing the plays dramatic and humorous scenes. Stephen O’Leary in the role of Jacob both depicts the pathos of his characters history but also the portrayal of his role as both older brother and parent figure to Lucas that is the core of the play’s narrative arc. They are completely believable as brothers and between them there is a huge amount of dialogue and stage direction which both young actors convey seamlessly. There are some scenes that are enhanced because of the lighting and sound design and Bill Woodland’s work here while suiting the intimate space of the New Theatre well would also translate just as easily to a larger theatre in time. There are some scenes that have a cinematic tone.
While Jacob and Lucas both feature in many of the play’s humorous scenes much of the plays best lines of dialogue are conveyed in the character of Terry. Karen Kelly’s depiction of Terry draws a wonderfully fine line in being both crude and hilarious in either recounting the details of a side story in full or a one line retort. With the characters of Jacob, Lucas and Terry so well defined the character of Mary is perhaps one of the more difficult to depict but Michelle Costello’s interactions with each of the other characters are well portrayed particularly in how her character uses the structure of fairy tale to convey what she is trying to say or when recounting memory.
What also is a key component throughout the play is music. Pop songs feature before the play starts, within the dialogue and actions such as a song and dance scene and at its close. The play encapsulated how pop music or a lullaby can be used to say what can’t be said in our own dialogue. Certain songs were used specifically and cleverly, and how a simple lyric like when the brothers sing ‘It feels like home’ can have a hugely poignant meaning.
Some of the best plays that this reviewer has seen this year have been by smaller productions but each of them, like this play, have had big themes which were conveyed powerfully. The first draft of Happy Birthday Jacob was written by Michael Marshall when he was seventeen and this is a production that deserves to be seen by a wide audience and also highlights the importance of new writing, performances and production.
Writer: Michael Marshall
Director: Laura Bowler
Producer / Set Designer: Ciara Murnane
Costume Designer: Mary Sheehan
Sound and lighting Designer: Bill Woodland
Cast: Jacob – Stephen O’Leary
Lucas- Finian Duff Lennon
Terry – Karen Kelly
Mary – Michelle Costello