The Absence of Women

The men in Owen McCafferty's world still can't dance, but at least now they can talk about it

'A theatre is only as important as what takes place within it.' Owen McCafferty's programme notes provide a fitting preamble for the Lyric Theatre's second run of The Absence of Women in as many years.

As in their first run back in early 2010, when it was performed 'off site' at the Elmwood Hall, Rachel O’Riordan directs this study of lives in ruin with an eye and an ear for the unspoken word – a tremendous sleight of hand with a script dripping with verbosity. After all, The Absence of Women is the most finely distilled of McCafferty's ‘male’ discourses.

Those Northern Irish natives unfamiliar with the play or McCafferty’s canon will need little prepping to recognise the world and the characters that he writes about. It’s a day in the life of old Belfastards Iggy and Gerry, two of that great forgotten tribe of migrant workers – the Irish labourer in London.

Lured to the ‘big smoke’ decades ago by the promise of wealth, their dreams have long since been dashed on the brutish streets they once believed were paved with gold. Drinking has replaced digging, and Iggy and Gerry's lives have unravelled accordingly.

What should be a long, dark teatime of the soul, however – as they sip mugs of hot stuff and 'pretend we’re alive' – is actually laced with much humour, albeit of the gallows variety.

Ciaran McIntyre and Peter Gowen are Iggy and Gerry, or the 'quiet one' and 'the slabber', respectively. They make for an arresting double act, duellists rather than duo, competing with each other at every well turned line.

But as they sit at their table, irascible and ornery, each bragging over a litany of laments – from livers the size of dinner plates to the dangers of underground gas – it is, of course, what’s not said that cuts through the noisy braggadocio.

In flashbacks we get the great tipping points in each man’s life: the moments that have, ultimately, lead them to this table, this refuge, this state of perpetual, obfuscatory discourse.

The staging is suitably evocative: an ominous trench of shovels defines the line between audience and performers. Gerry even makes a joke about using shovel language in one of his many deliciously sprawling anecdotes, which in turn leads to another delightful riff of one-upmanship on the subject of the senses.

One can’t help but notice the differences between the Lyric's two productions of the play, however. Whilst O’Riordan’s directorial hand remains assured, and clearly finesses the play into a finely honed and pleasingly efficient show, there are distinctions here.

Karl Johnson and Ian McElhinney originally played Iggy and Gerry more like Estragon and Vladimir on the sauce, all the emotional and moral ambivalence left just so, their bluster all the more painful for it.

This version, though, finds more dramatically conventional characters engaging in more emotionally direct ways. It is, of course, to McIntyre and Gowen’s credit that they make the roles very much their own. Their exchanges possess such warmth that when they get to dance near the end of the play, it’s both excruciatingly poignant and funny.

And yet (as is so often the case in a Northern Irish production), the main character's accents don’t convince. Gowen sounds too well heeled to have spent a life on the gargle and the road; whilst McIntyre's brogue sounds more Ballykissangel than Belfast.

The undoubted substance, quality and emotional truth of the central performances can’t help but be slightly marred by such accented anomalies, but it is testimony to the production that we can suspend our disbelief despite them. 

If this is the first time you’ve seen The Absence of Women, you will love the writing, the performances and the beautifully realised capture on stage of an endangered male species. Belfast men still don’t dance, but at least now they can talk about it.

The Absence of Women runs in the Lyric Theatre until September 3.

The Absence of Women