A play so good they named it twice, Fionna Hewitt-Twamley not only fills Carmel McCafferty's shoes comfortably, but is bewitching as the rock bottom title character once known as Maire
Descending the steps of Derry~Londonderry's Millennium Forum on opening night of Foster's highly anticipated adaptation Myra's Story, Carmel McCafferty's framed picture as the iconic Maire - A Woman of Derry watches from prime position at the top of the staircase. Audiences take their seats with conjectured whispers, 'I can't imagine anyone else but Carmel.'
The curtain opens to a bench, a bin and a begging 'bean'. And as Fionna Hewitt-Twamley delivers her opening lines in a thick Dublin brogue, reeling the audience in, there's a sense of another career-defining role in the making.
Retaining the essence of the original in all its self-deprecating, foul-mouthed glory, 48 year old 'wine connossieur' Myra of the mean streets of Dublin recounts a life-lived through a series of technicolour flashbacks. She relives a childhood laced with alcohol and mounting tragedies. Myra tells it as it is, no details spared, forcing audiences to watch – and like a car crash we can't look away.
Myra is possessed by every character from her past, whether Tina the Tap, Jimmy the Tadpole or the unfortunate hairy apeman Christy. She embodies each role in such a way that every feature on her face changes, every mannerism unique and every character distinguishable from the last. I refuse to believe it wasn't some form of witchcraft, then again it could just be the supreme acting talents of Hewitt-Twamley.
Myra brings us on her rollercoaster ride of addiction, a marriage, miscarriage and 'the worst day of her life', the cot-death of her long-awaited son Patrick.
The naivety of young married life with Derry-man Tommy McLaughlin marks a happier episode in Myra's journey. 'Six wains, two greyhounds and a deep-fat fryer’ – aspirations were low but contentment was high. Early on Myra wins audiences over as she reenacts the incessant shagging and whispered orgasms of their paper thin Milltown love nest. Drawing bellyaching cackles from one audience member in particular, Myra doesn't miss a beat – 'It really was that funny, missus' - as she gyrates back and forth.
The hilarity of the moment is punctuated by a 'Please mister can you spare any change' dragging us slap-bang into the dark reality of the present. But a 'stingy bastards' lightens the mood once more. The dizzying back and forth leaves audiences crying when they should be laughing and vice versa.
Particularly poignant on the eve of the October 5 Civil Rights march 50th anniversary, Myra's account of events 'when sticks and stones gave way to bombs and bullets' is met with a stunned silence except for a solitary 'oh dear.' Three rows of teenagers who had been giggling and chittering seconds before hang on to every word, not one phone in sight. It is a feat in itself to hold the attention of any audience, but one with such a share of younger people, presumably non-regular theatre-goers, deserves even more credit.
The play takes a darker path from here. Losing her beloved baby boy, Myra's marriage collapses, her drinking spirals out of control and she fulfils her father's prophecy, succumbing to 'The Beast.' Medicating more heavily now, swigging larger gulps from the bottle, she rants rather poetically in her moments of lucidity.
A Diogenes of our time, Myra theorises about the absurdities of life and searching for a higher meaning, 'If God exists' she says, 'he's a sadist.' Even her comparison of her dead father to a chicken, 'the greatest man in Dublin', echo Diogenes' 'Behold! A man.' Pick her up, put her in Trinity's Long Room and she could be mistaken for Dublin's own Poet Laureate. But alas Dublin has an army of philosophers, she chides, all with a story to tell if only we took the time to listen.
Blotting out the bad images with the good, a practice she repeats intermittently, Myra pulls old photos from her pocket, reminding herself that it wasn't always like this.
Recounting in vivid detail the mirror-image of her father's alcoholism, a nation's troubled past and a tragic destiny fulfilled; audiences are left with the forboding notion that by not learning from our past, we are doomed to repeat it. But to quote Tommy's beloved Bob Dylan, 'Yesterday's just a memory, tomorrow is never what it's supposed to be.'
As the curtain drops a sustained standing ovation follows with Hewitt-Twamley reappearing to give a humble thumbs up.
The unmissable Myra... will challenge preconceived notions of addiction, intoxicate audiences and leave them dizzy with tears of laughter and pain. She has nobody and nothing but one hell of a story if we only stop to listen.
The play will continue its tour to At Cultúrlann McAdam Ó Fiaich, Belfast from October 15 - 20 and the Market Place Theatre, Armagh from October 24 - 25. For more upcoming shows at the Millennium Forum, Derry~Londonderry visit www.millenniumforum.co.uk.