What is the difference between generations? It’s a stretch to suggest that Fregoli Theatre Company, a troupe based on the west coast of Ireland, has had the longevity to see one generation of players leave and another arrive during its seven-year existence. Taking its name from the renowned Italian impersonator Leopold Fregoli, the company quickly established a high octane Lecoq-type method of physical storytelling, using early plays by Enda Walsh and Raymond Scannell to not so much test the water as send it thrashing.
There’s no ignoring a stylistic shift in recent times. Founding members who helped artistic director Maria Tivnan and technical manager Rob McFeely inform the company’s distinctive style departed a few years back, paving the way for a new crop of players keen to adopt their vigorous approach. There has also been an artistic commitment made to producing original plays penned by Tivnan that often incorporate the company’s liking for choreography and live music. With Mary Mary Mary being the most recent offering, you do feel that Fregoli have lost some verve.
It’s a drama about three generations of women named Mary in the west of Ireland. The oldest, Mary Ellen (Tracy Bruen), is dealt the question: “What is love?” Her granddaughter Mary Jacqueline, or ‘MJ’ (Eilish McCarthy), doesn’t hold out much hope. “The world’s most credible lie,” she offers, although you don’t blame her after a mélange of commentaries (“Mary you’ve put on weight”, “Mary you’ve gone to hell!”) confirm the subject of Tivnan’s script: the intense scrutiny under which women’s lives are placed.
While the play is cynical towards tradition, specifically the shelving of a woman’s career for that of a homemaker, the middle Mary, Mary Bernadette, still beams with hope in Eimear Kilmartin’s squint-eyed performance, her smile exuding childlike innocence. It’s this divide between heartfelt devotion and domestic duty, sentiment and service, in which McCarthy’s MJ is caught. To a melody from Bruen’s soulful voice, she discovers love and betrayal in one fell swoop.
Some of its fragments are effective. A scene that sees the three women embark on a day trip to Dublin is played with giggly excitement. Elsewhere, Bruen sheds bittersweet tears as Mary Ellen watches a television performance of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, commiserating a middle-aged woman’s own missed opportunities at romance.
As a whole, the play is less consistent. The script is not dialogic but choral, and while each character is clearly defined in their age and personality, when they narrate they tend to blend into one singular and purple voice. They dissolve into a lyricism that is measured by directors Tivnan and Kate Murray to a mesmerising rhythm but overall emphasising style over substance. These flourishes impede the emotional arcs of the piece, resulting in a preference for a hit-and-run approach. For example, a tragic revelation in the jangle of the opening minutes is comparably played gently and solemnly but isn’t well set up and as a result not earned.
The pared back design of the stage, encompassing only a clothesline and a few chairs, suggests that the body is being pushed to the fore. While Kilmartin and McCarthy are deft and charming, they are newcomers to the company’s physical style, and if they have not adopted it all that successfully, the direction given to them lacks coherence and energy. The spare space is susceptible to imaginative lighting by Matt Burke, using sinister greens and pinks to serve up darker scenes; however, these lamps also give unfortunate blotches elsewhere.
In the flap of a fresh towel from the clothesline, a character fondly remarks on “the story of the everyday”. Tivnan’s fondness for rhyme and poetic description seems to seek truth in the banal but at the expense of dramatic character and plot drive. Resolving that will support the two pillars that Fregoli’s craft is known for: fierce physicality and stark poetic beauty.
Mary Mary Mary is touring until 29 May. For more information and tickets, see the Fregoli Theatre Company website.