Theatre Review: Katie Roche - Abbey Theatre

Teresa Deevy may be about to lose her ‘neglected playwright’ mantle.

While her work fell out of favour at the Abbey Theatre after her 1930s heyday, she has enjoyed critical acclaim in New York, thanks to a cycle of her work by the Mint Theatre company between 2010 and 2013. 

Also, a mid-1990s version of the current revival, Katie Roche, gave the great Derbhle Crotty an early outing at the Abbey.

Now, director Caroline Byrne returns with a production that sets itself a contradictory task: to represent dramatically the impossibility of a woman being fully herself. The answers found by Byrne and her team make for a sophisticated, challenging work.

Katie Roche has a marriage plot, a domestic setting, and a realist structure. But none of this is allowed detract from the potential strangeness at the heart of Deevy’s play. 

Its expressionistic aspects are to the fore from the off, when a model of an Irish country home is lifted to reveal the heroine, emerging from the earth beneath. Soon, there’s a marble altar rising from the soil, while over the drama looms a guillotine blade of glass panes.

Those fractured, allusive elements of Joanna Scotcher’s design complement a remarkable performance from Caoilfhionn Dunne (right). 

Her Katie is undomesticated, prowling, unpredictable in her movements and moods — almost more unpredictable to herself than to others. Katie is an outsider: an ‘illegitimate’ daughter whose status means a circumscribed life of toil in a convent, before domestic service for the unmarried, respectable Amelia Gregg (played with wry comic timing by Siobhan McSweeney).

Almost on a whim, Katie marries Amelia’s respectable brother, Stanislaus, adopting another societally sanctioned, but ill-fitting role. 

Their relationship is no domestic drama — indeed, Stanislaus (Sean Campion) is a man so dull and straight-laced, it’s as if he’s wandered in from another play, another era entirely. But Byrne is alive to this mismatch. She knows Deevy’s point is a radical, sociological one. 

And, through a Chekhovian emphasis on fluctuating tone, a positively Greek irony, and plenty of absurd flourishes, she sustains a feeling of fairy tale unreality that is faithful to the play’s daring. 

The result is a beguiling, absorbing production that places Deevy in a tradition of Irish theatre which
includes Brian Friel and Tom Murphy.

Star Rating: 4/5


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