Theatre Critic and Journalist

Review: Little Gem, Bush Theatre

Review: Little Gem, Bush Theatre

Published on Culture Wars, 23.04.2010

Elaine Murphy’s debut invites you into the family fold with open arms. When its three women – mothers spanning three generations of the same working-class Dublin family – talk, you feel as if you’re sitting across the kitchen table over a cup of tea, rather than in the stalls with anonymous others. Their entwined monologues are confessional gabbles, joshing us along with warm, wry self-deprecation and lovingly snide asides. By its end, as your thoughts return to your own kin, Little Gem is the sort of piece that has you reaching for your phone to fire off a quick text home.

That’s got a lot to do with Murphy’s delicate lacing of sentimentality, which sees the play fall into a familiar pattern of births, sex and deaths. Freewheeling ladette Amber has fallen pregnant at 19. The father has hopped off to Australia. Her mother, Lorraine, is rediscovering herself with some mid-life spiciness and Kay, grandmother to the clan, nurses her ailing husband following a recent stroke. We know we’re heading for a funeral from the moment Kay opens her mouth, but Murphy writes with such warmth, good humour and joie de vivre that it hardly matters.

Looking closer, there’s a running conflict between selfish desires – me-time – and familial duties. All three struggle to banish a clutter of everyday concerns and lose themselves in a moment of sexual encounter. Amber snoozes as her boyfriend chugs away, half-waking only to gather that the condom has split and doze off gin, Lorraine has to suppress her urge to tidy Lego and Kay wrangles with the idea of trialling a vibrator while her incapacitated husband sleeps next to her. They can’t turn off in order to turn on. Being a mother, being a wife are constraints that bring other pleasures. Murphy’s suggests these to be more rewarding, particularly with her final image of three women in a double bed chuckling themselves to sleep, but one cannot but be aware of the absence and imbalance. “All I want,” says Lorraine, “is a break from myself.”

This quiet celebration of women, too gentle and tender to feel like full-blown feminism, does leave itself open to accusations of lopsidedness in its portrayal of men. When they appear, caricatured by the women, they are invariably cock-hipped and tight-lipped with lilting, leering voices. Even Niall, the good-natured doctor dating Lorraine, is notable for his excessive body hair, baldness and sweat. Are we really all that bad? Or does Murphy place her browbeaten women on a flimsy pedestal? The only man celebrated along the way is Kay’s husband, and even here it is only a brief eulogy. It does, however, stand as a nice contrast to the life-changing rites of passage elsewhere, as Gem is remembered in miniature moments – a karaoke song, a Santa Claus outfit, umbrellas. “What really makes a life?” you ask, “What makes a person? Their relationships? Their offspring? Or their actions and the gentle reverbertations that they leave behind?”

Paul Meade directs simply, placing the three women on chairs that are characterful in spite of being ordinary and giving each their own pool of light, but he demonstrates attention to fine, intangible details of human expression, which manifests itself in three splendid performances. Amelia Crowley’s pinched Lorraine is all blinking eyelids and sweaty palms. As she grows calmer, confident even, the mischief increases. Girlish chuckles leave laughter lines. Sarah Greene also develops nicely through the piece as Amber’s firm-footed aggression softens into enforced but inadvertent maturity. There is a lovely moment in which she makes her weeping, eating and excreting newborn sound like a Tamagotchi.

Best of all – and she truly is a joy to witness – is Anita Reeves. Her Kay is a rosy-cheeked rascal, permanently puckish and buoyant. Life, for Kay, has become a laugh; modernity a mystery, as hilarious as it is perplexing. Dithering over her vibrator, Kay tosses us camp, gleeful ‘Carry On, Vicar’ glances, creasing up at the thought. When her thoughts turn to her family, her deep sincerity and concern is punctured by snappy asides, unable to resist a gag, but never a jab. Giggling and gutsy, Reeves is a delight in a play that is a pleasure to watch.

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