I sat in the intimate Old Red Lion Theatre waiting excitedly to be transported to the Irish Midlands. There is artificial grass under my feet, the scenography already a spectacle, and all I can think about is how they will fit eleven cast members and all of these spectators into this space.
Susan Stanley, who leads this show as Portia, certainly deserves credit. She portrays this protagonist as inevitably self-destructive; her precise characterisation and almost-distorted moments of physicality make her a real wonder to watch throughout. Her partner Raphael, played by Ben Mulhern, in contrast offers something very real, his performance provoking genuine sympathy within his very relatably hopeless situation.
Another highlight is her father, Christopher Dunne, who gives another a very strong performance. Sitting on the front row I felt moments of real sincerity and despair, which is crucial to a piece of writing that demands so much from the characters. The bittersweet pair of Maggie May and Senchil are fun and full of light relief on the surface, but it is soon apparent that they have as many layers as the writing itself. Veronica Quilligan creates some really beautiful moments, offering more depth to the character than the tarty make-up and costume suggest. James Holmes is clearly a skilled performer, but unfortunately most of his lines are lost through delivery (but had nothing to do with the fact that he spends the play with biscuits in his mouth). Anne Kent, also of note, provides conflict and harsh reality checks as Blaize Scully, and her performance provides moments of empathy, as she mostly said what the audience were thinking and were shocked by.
There are some clever scenographic decisions throughout this piece, clearly led by set and costume designer Nik Corrall. Large hanging bulbs mark the different spaces in this play, and they become enough of a signifier that we actually need very little other indication of a scene change at all. Without too many design spoilers, the water haunting this play seeps into these scenography decisions and serve the production extremely well.
Although staged and set with strong intention, the fragmented sections of movement really let this piece down. When you specifically frame moments through choreography, it’s the precision that makes them magical and other-worldly. It certainly has the potential to be achieved in this piece but perhaps rehearsal time did not allow it. These movement sections would not have felt quite so disorientating, perhaps, if this stylised physicality had been integrated into the piece as a whole.
This narrative relies on us investing totally in this mythical world and, although most of the characters are established and clearly thought through, what is needed is significantly more relationship development. The characterisation overall is strong but there are few believable relationships, which ultimately makes it hard to care about the people in front of us.
Although the text itself presents a disturbing and depressing narrative, if you go along to see Portia Coughlan you’ll be greeted with brilliant visuals and performances that will haunt – but just like poor Portia, perhaps you’ll be left seeking what was missing too.
Portia Coughlan is playing The Old Red Lion until 23 May. For more information and tickets, see the Old Red Lion Theatre website.