After running past the Finborough Theatre several times, I finally made it inside. Once inside, the set was idyllically humble for this production of T. C Murray’s Autumn Fire. The set (designed by Philip Lindley) consisted of rickety chairs and table, with rotting wood panels framing the room. Under the direction of Veronica Quilligan, the production evoked a real sense of rural Ireland in the 1920s through corduroy trousers and “queer talk of the town”. It was also where modern influences were beginning to appear in the lives of the Keegans and the Desmonds. Farmer Owen Keegan, who lives with his two grown up children, falls in love with a woman half his age.
The play teetered between comedy and melodrama, andjesting gradually became genuine and hard–hitting. The play opens with a playful tone, with only a hint of hostility between Keegan’s daughter Ellen, played by Aoife McMahon, and Nance, played by Valene Kane. Kane was perfectly slight and pretty, playing a girl who enjoys “young fellows and low cut dresses”. Ellen was appropriately dull in comparison, in a bland and unflattering dress; her sharp Irish accent and harsh expressions displayed how “hard spoken” she was compared to the softly-spoken and adored Nance.
Transfers between the three acts were accompanied by Irish folk songs, successfully setting the atmosphere through the melancholy or upbeat style of the song. They were also a reminder of how important nationality was to the message of the play; this was certainly an Irish story.
There seemed to be a continual string of bad decisions which lead to the decay of the Keegan’s family life. Owen Keegan, who is about 60, hastily marries neighbour Nance, 40 years his junior. The marriage feels unnatural and Nance’s intentions and reasons for this marriage remained unclear. This decision provokes the maddening behaviour of Ellen, the illness of Owen and the sinful feelings shared between Ellen’s brother, Michael (Eoin Geoghegan), and Nance. Luke Hayden played the foolish and pitiful father well, characterising this through clumsy gestures and uncontained babble. A positive change in character was seen in Michael Keegan (Eoin Geoghegan), who grows more confident by Act 3. His cowardly boy-like presence grows into a manly and confident one as he enjoys the company of Nance in the house; however it is short- lived and his departure suggests an end to rural life as it once was.
The script captured Ireland but I wonder whether it managed to capture the characters just as well. I enjoyed the interjections of comedy and different perspectives from supporting actors Tom Furlong, Maureen Bennett, Aoife Lennon and Frank Fitzpatrick, and also the constant reference to the country dances. Taken as a whole, the play explores the nature of rural Irish life, with Nance often commenting that “there’s always much talk about nothing”. The play seemed to say that this life offers little fulfilment for the youth who lived there, with girls such as Nance often falling into hasty marriages. The play also suggested that rural Ireland was extremely stubborn to modern ideas, with the only apparently satisfied character being Ellen, who maintained her belief in tradition and strictly Catholic behaviour. It reminded me of a less developed Dancing at Lughnasa, but with equal emotional weight and well executed characters.
Autumn Fire is playing at the Finborough Theatre.