The post office in Coolatully is all boarded up. The local pub only stocks ready salted crisps and is struggling to break even. This used to be the sort of place you could leave your windows open and your key in the door, not anymore. There’s been a spate of burglaries, even the local church has been broken into.
Needless to say most people left this part of the southwest coast of Ireland long ago. They’ve emigrated to Australia, New Zealand, Canada – seduced by the promise of regular sunshine and employment. Killian Dempsey (Kerr Logan) is still here though. Years ago he led his county to victory in the 2004 Munster-Minor final, now he’s tending to his brother’s grave and whiling his life away on the dole. How times have changed.
Coolatully is the latest winner of the Papatango New Writing Prize. Launched in 2009, the prize boasts Dawn King’s Foxfinder and Luke Owen’s Unscorched among its impressive list of previous winners. Like those plays, Fiona Doyle’s debut full-length play is undeniably impressive. She uses the fictional town of its title to paint a devastating bleak portrait of the very real human cost of seemingly terminal socio-economic decline in modern day Ireland.
The main thrust of Doyle’s play concerns Killian’s relationship with Jimmy (Eric Richard), a family friend whom he has known for most of his life. When we first see them together, Killian dutifully tends to Jimmy’s stiff joints with a bowl of lukewarm water – an act that is not only emblematic of their enduring friendship but a clear indication of the extent to which Jimmy has come to rely on Killian in his old age. That dependency makes the act of disloyalty at the heart of the play completely shattering.
That said, you probably saw it coming. The plotting is heavy handed, with Doyle’s eagerness to impose a sense of dramatic foreboding resulting in a stodgy sense of contrivance. Doyle is perhaps also guilty of spending too long mulling over the repercussions of Killian’s actions, resulting in a rather directionless final third that serves to lessen the eventual impact of the play. And although David Mercatali’s production is steeped in a languishing melancholy, at 98 minutes it is frequently lacking in forward momentum.
Kerr Logan is excellent as Killian, showing glimpses of his former self that shoot through his overall despair. He is fantastically watchable and worth keeping an eye on. The peripheral characters, though, are less developed and the omission of Killian’s mother from the on-stage action is misjudged given her semi-inclusion in noises from upstairs.
Those flaws aside, this is a promising debut that provides further vindication for Papatango as a important new writing prize.
Coolatully is at the Finborough Theatre until 22 November. For more information and tickets, go to the Finborough Theatre website.