Little Gem

Three generations of female Dubliners capture the imagination, writes Julie Harvey

The new Irish tour of Little Gem kicks off with two nights at Belfast’s Waterfront Studio theatre. With a host of awards to its name - including the prestigious Carol Tambor Best Of Edinburgh Award 2009, and previous sell out seasons in New York, London, Paris, the Edinburgh Fringe and Dublin - this production promises big things.

Written by Elaine Murphy, Little Gem is a collaboration between Dublin-based Gúna Nua Theatre Company and The Civic Theatre, Tallaght. Though Murphy’s first play, the piece boosts an emotional resonance, wit and polish that you might expect of more experienced writer.

Little Gem's publicity does not give much away, enigmatically listing characters and scenarios, so that the audience enter the theatre with an open mind.

The production consists of three monologues, with each actress voicing several characters, recalling snippets of their own back stories and giving the audience their own perspective on events. These parallel monologues mirror the theme of the character's emotional repression and inability to talk to one another directly.

The cast of three actresses adeptly interweave their stories to build up a poignant tale of sadness and change in everyday life. They are three generations of one Dublin family, and though they never once look at each other or interact at all, they still manage to convey the full extent of their mutual love and closeness.

Amber, the daughter, opens the play and grabs your attention with a fast-paced and heavily accented description of her Deb Ball. We then meet Lorraine, her mother, in the middle of a crisis at work as she battles with an obnoxious customer. Grandmother Kay gets the best lines, talking about her itch ‘down there’ and her many attempts to relieve it.

While all three actresses are superb, it is impossible not to single out Anita Reeves (Kay) for special attention. Reeves was part of the original cast (when Little Gem debuted in Dublin) and her two years in the role show through. Her comic timing and body language are spot on; it’s easy to see why she has twice been nominated for Best Actress awards.

The direction from Gúna Nua founder Paul Meade is subtle yet knowing, providing space for the cast to develop their characters. Visuals are at times projected onto a blank screen and music clips woven into the dialogue, but these effects never threaten to overpower the acting.

The props are minimal too: a water bottle, a shopping bag and a quick change of top for Lorraine. Such minimalism could be risky in other hands, as it virtually leaves the actors to carry the play alone, but they do the job with aplomb.

Murphy's script is comedic, and most of the jokes are timed to perfection, though often it can be hard to follow the quick Dublin dialect. Murphy obviously delights in bawdy, rude language, made even funnier when it’s a respectable 60-something housewife swearing and talking about dildos. Nevertheless, there is a neat balance struck between risqué humour and the tragedy of family, so the play doesn’t descend into either vulgarity or sentimentality.

Gúna Nua have succeeded in producing a first rate, entertaining performance that would be equally at home in a larger, more mainstream theatre such as the Opera House – Little Gem certainly deserves a bigger audience. I’ll be looking out for their next production and have a new motto from the play to take away with me: ‘I’m interesting and quirky, not mental and pathetic’.