Theatre Review: Helen and I at the Mick Lally Theatre, Galway

4/5

A melodrama dealing with difficult family relations, bitter pasts, frustrated dreams, and pent-up emotions, Meadhbh McHugh’s promising debut, produced under the wing of Druid, courts familiar scenarios and tropes, but reinvigorates these with rich dialogue and intriguing characters.

As adult sisters, Cathy Belton (Helen) and Rebecca O’Mara (Lynn) are perfectly pitched. Reunited in the family home to hold vigil over their dying father, the pair are knotted together by a difficult childhood and unresolved tensions.

Belton is a fierce, scarred hellcat, circling chaos. O’Mara is a high-strung, overly sheltered dolly bird who — in spite of her frailties — is somehow the moral centre of the play. Eventually, the tension has to snap. The presence of Lynn’s husband Tony (a charismatic Paul Hickey) and Helen’s daughter Evvy (Seána O’Hanlon) ensures that it will.

Director Annabelle Comyn and her design team marshal everything expertly, creating a simple but clever set that shapeshifts — in appearance and in mood — throughout the play. But it is the actors — who launch themselves into this bruising kitchen encounter with nerve-shredding intensity — that deserve the most admiration.

Admittedly, the play frequently lapses into tired cliché. The finale — complete with the bruised resolutions of the genre – is a bit of a let-down and the play’s core metaphor (humidity/rainfall) is too hackneyed. However, these missteps are redeemed by the production’s deranged, surreal, and grotesque qualities.

Much of this is filtered through O’Mara’s damaged china doll, who is a fascinating creature, her poised walk, lolling head movements, and twitchy smiles and grimaces making for brilliant theatre. When she shows up late on, smeared in muck and carrying a shovel, it is an image worthy of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane. Indeed, at its best the play recalls Hollywood melodramas steeped in gothic sensibilities.

A malignant spectral presence — alluded to via uncanny breathing in the score and in images such as tenacious briars outside the house — raises well-worn material into something weirder, kitschier, and far more enchanting than mere kitchen-sink hysterics.

  • Until September 18, then Civic Theatre, Tallaght, September 27-October 1

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