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Sunday 2nd December 2007
Theatre Review | CRESTFALL | CPR @ Theatre503

Production: Crestfall
Playwright: Mark O'Rowe
Producer: CPL & Theatre503
Venue: Theatre503
Address: Latchmere Pub, 503 Battersea Park Road, London SW11 3BW
Box Office: +44 (0)20 7978 7040
Dates: 27 November - 15 December 2007
Opened: 28 November 2007
Buy Theatre Tickets from Ticketmaster
Reviewed by Howard Loxton

First seen at the Gate in Dublin in 2003, this play now gets its London premiere and begins dramatically with a flash of lightning that reveals a silvered wall on all sides of the stage. It then abandons most of the advantages that theatre gives to draw in an audience and involve them in the writer's ideas and story.

O'Rowe can certainly write – he won the George Devine Award and a couple of other prizes and has several produced plays to his credit – and he has a wonderful way with words. This is my first exposure to his work, but Howie and the Rookie, the play about Dublin low-life that won the prizes, is written in the form of two male monologues, fitting an Irish storytelling style that can be seen in other plays such as Conor McPherson's The Weir.

Crestfall is written in the form of three monologues spoken by a trio of women from a rural Irish town where life is hard and violent. First there is a sex-mad young woman talking about losing her virginity to Big Dick Benny and her subsequent encounters; then there is a woman whose sex life is non-existent who worries about her son, and thirdly there is a prostitute subjected to gross indignities by her pimp. The same local characters crop up in all their lives.

Storytelling is fine, but you do either have to have another character to whom you tell the story, or one must embrace the audience and tell it to them. This production, by Róisín McBrinn, places the three characters on stage throughout but they have no contact and they tell their disjointed stories to empty space rather than to the audience or an imaginary other.

It is not a transparent narrative. At one point I thought that we were being given three aspects of the same woman or different points in her life. At another the mother in need of love was becoming incestuously involved with her son, whose boyhood she was also reminiscing about. I have no problem with a narrative that misleads before it reveals itself, where you have to readjust your comprehension, but in this case, even at the end, I had some difficulty in putting the facts together. Why?

O'Rowe writes in two-word phrases, sentences of four words. It is a kind of naturalism heightened by a literary awareness: the Irish gift of the gab and a Joycean stream of consciousness melding with Dylan Thomas-like word-pairs and image-making. I love the richness of his language. There were words I had to guess at, perhaps Irish expressions unknown to me, perhaps a lexicon of his own invention, but it was not this that caused my confusion.

It is not easy to sustain a twenty-five minute solo of non-stop talking. O'Rowe's short phrases produce verbal rhythms that, especially in the first monologue as delivered by Pauline Hutton, become repetitive. Add to the repetition deliberately dim lighting, apart from that first bright flash and a few moments when lights come up a notch or half, and you produce a soporific effect rather than one that ratchets up the concentration. Gloom does not necessarily suggest the dereliction of these lives. As Brecht demonstrated half a century ago, there is nothing like the bright light of scrutiny.

I must confess that I am not drawn to shows comprising monologues that are not structured as stand-up. I prefer my theatre to be about interaction, with other characters and with audience. Paradoxically, I have seen exactly that with numerous one-man shows but here, even with three performers, it was largely lacking. Only Niamh Cusack's Alison, the second speaker, seemed to have a sense of a world around her. Perhaps that was partly O'Rowe's point, that they had no real connection with anything outside themselves – except that what they tell us is all about sexual and violent encounters with others.

The first girl, Olive, tells us precisely how 'over clothes strokeage, under clothes gropeage' led up to her losing her 'cherry' to the sound of 'two faggots, mid fuck, one bass, one baritone.' Then there is 'cuddle time, snuggle time' with gentle husband Jungle, and Philip who has a dog with three eyes, its 'pink prick appearing'. Is it he or a bully called Inchy, one of the violent Walpole brothers, who produces a 'double-donged dildo', and which of them fathered her child? When Jungle finds out it's not his and gives her a beating, she accepts it, welcomes it almost, as the first sign of a passion she wants in her men.

Mother Alison is sex-starved, 'celibate in shame'. Her husband sits 'telly-transfixed at dinner time, silent, belly big above his belt, Buddha-like.' Is this that same Philip or is that her son? She talks of her fears for her boy, of his concern that he has lost his dog, her concern when he gets caught up in violence, though whether the 7-inch long scar on his head is from a horse's hoof when he was a lad or from an axe wound, I could not be sure, nor what she was talking about, nor where all the violence she described fitted in. O'Rowe's words don't convey information so much as form incantations. This is the most convincing performance but the least comprehensible.

The third voice, Tilly (Orla Fitzgerald), has whisky tipped down her throat as her pimp scrabbles to produce an abortion, fellates one of her clients and then with a slobbering dog over her is asked to fellate that too. From the squalor and violence of her sex trade she seems to have a moment of fantasy lesbian tranquillity before being pulled from a bathtub and beaten, and it is she who describes a maddened and revengeful Jungle going berserk with a shotgun at the house of the Walpole brothers.

This is a world where a dead horse floats by, coiled in barbed wire, and where the townspeople seem to go everywhere via the 'bone yard' littered with skulls and skeletons, the detritus of a knackers yard or abattoir, but more of a symbol than a real place, a field of the dead hopes of them all.

Despite the graphic reality of its images this is not so much a realistic piece as a picture of the dark side of humanity. Its isolating monologue form probably makes it easier to accept its content. Its verbal dexterity and brazen coarseness get laughs and also help the audience deal with horror. The problem is that my memory is full only of rich words, not of O'Rowe's ideas or the play's content. I found it all too confusingly presented in this production.

Howard Loxton © 2007

Reviews
Cast
Niamh Cusack
Orla Fitzgerald
Pauline Hutton
Director: Róisín McBrinn
Designer: Paul Wills
Lighting Designer: Philip Gladwell
Sound Designer: Sarah Weltman

 
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