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The Wexford Trilogy
By Lizzie Loveridge
Most of us wage war on the wrong people Jimmy, but you beat the binů.. You wage war on everybody. -- Stapler
We gathered at the Tricycle Theatre in Kilburn for a whole day of Irish theatre, a revival of three plays by Billy Roche, set in Wexford in the south of Ireland. What we got was the kind of tale telling that Ireland is famous for with rich characters running in her veins. You see, Billy Roche was writing plays which won awards in London a decade before West End hits like The Weir and Stones in His Pockets. His plays are in the raw, altogether an experience, while not always comfortable, challenging and satisfying.
The first of the trio, A Handful of Stars, is a tribute to the era of the film rebel -- stars like James Dean in Rebel without A Cause and Marlon Brando in On The Waterfront. Roche's central figure, Jimmy Brodie (Peter McDonald), is one such. He is a confident but volatile young man whose world is not confined by the small town he lives in, of which all we see is the shabby snooker hall. Jimmy has the twin attractions of charm and uncompromising self destruction. The other characters are Stapler (Michael McElhatton), the over-the-hill boxer; Conway (Gary Lydon), successful in local terms through working hours of overtime at the factory; and Tony (Hugh O'Conor), Jimmy's age but socially conforming and Paddy, old and the owner of the snooker hall. Swan (Eamon Maguire) is a sinister local policeman who's out to catch Jimmy while Elaine Symons plays Jimmy's girlfriend, Linda, whom he constantly lets down. Jimmy has the twin attractions of charm and uncompromising self destruction.
The second play, Poor Beast in The Rain, is set on the day of an All Ireland Hurling final in a betting shop. "Danger" Doyle (Michael McElhatton) has returned to his home town for the first time since running off to England with the wife of Steven (Michael O'Hagan) who owns the bookmakers. Doyle has returned to help his wife (who's still in England) to see her daughter Eileen (Elaine Symons) who has remained with her father. While Doyle's return sets things in motion, the crucial characters are the people who stayed behind -- the motherless Eileen, Steven and also Molly (Rebecca Egan), who has held a candle for Doyle for many years. What the play is about is loss and people repeating the relationship patterns they have learnt.
The third play, the longest and the most lyrical of the three The Belfry is the story of Artie O'Leary (Gary Lydon), a mild mannered man who lives with his mother. Artie works as a sacristan at the local Catholic church where he meets Angela (Rebecca Egan), a married woman with whom he has a passionate affair in the belfry, his secret territory. It is a play about memory and the impact of first love on an otherwise mature man. his own story told by Artie O'Leary (Gary Lydon), a mild mannered man who lives with his mother. This play is about memory and the impact of first love on an otherwise mature man.
I liked all three plays but particularly the first one. Peter McDonald is outstanding as the rebel and he will be one of the stars along with Brian Cox of a new Irish film Saltwater coming out in 2001, written by The Weir's Conor McPherson. Gary Lydon who was the first actor to play Jimmy Brady now almost 14 years later gives a sensitive performance as Artie in The Belfry. The sets convey the snooker hall and the betting shop well but The Belfry is especially impressive with two levels, the belfry, dominated by its huge bell with its view of the village, and the sacristancy of the church below.
My only reservation is about Roche's women characters in the first two plays. Linda is too bright to wait around for Jimmy in A Handful of Stars and the Irish women I have met seem unlikely to hanker as Molly is meant to have done, unrequited, for a character like Danger Doyle in Poor Beast in The Rain. But all three plays have splendid performances and the trilogy as a whole is atmospheric and gritty with lashings of Irish humour which Wilson Milam allows to develop at pace which allows for fascinating detail to emerge.