Lyric Theatre's latest production is beautifully written, directed with brio and perfectly performed
The paper peels from the walls. Everything is a tea stained sepia. The stage is a space that feels lived in: the sofa rucked from the weight of habitual buttocks, the oven blackened by a thousand dull dinners.
These walls, lined with bric-a-brac, taper into turrets of bare masonry. This house is a castle under siege, you can hear the dogs snarling outside, hear the splintering glass. It is the last house in the street, stuck between opposing Protestant and Catholic areas.
A man enters, stage-right, carrying a trombone. This is Lenny (Paul Mallon) He has inherited the house after the death of the former tenant, an elderly widow named Lily Matthews (a fierce and brittle Carol Moore).
He is joined by his estranged wife, Marian (Judith Roddy) whom, it transpires, has sold both her flat and her business and is now looking to buy a new house to live in. This house. 'A house,' she claims, 'that is eloquent with the history of this city.'
Marian is keen to keep everything as it is, and as Lenny looks on helplessly, his unbiddable wife seems to be in the throes of a nervous breakdown. And in truth it isn’t long before she starts to hear the voice of the deceased Lily, who ultimately shows up, bellowing harsh words from the door jamb.
Is this a haunting or is this a process that Lily, shaken by some yet to be disclosed trauma, needs to go through, the respectful accumulation of this dead woman’s belongings, whom she sees as very much a kindred spirit?
This is a play where the living haunt the dead. Lily, fractious and hard bitten, can find no purchase with Marian, who feels herself to be dead inside. 'You don’t like me,' she says, 'that’s something we both agree on – I don’t like me either.'
Pentecost is set during the Ulster Worker’s Council Strike of 1974, in which militant loyalist workers toppled the power sharing executive intended to replace direct rule from London with a local authority divided between Protestants and Catholics.
It’s an extraordinary back drop to the story, the world outside seems to melt away, a sea of feral madness. Characters who leave the house return bleeding. So eventually they stop leaving the house, eventually they become a family.
At the dead centre of the play is a missing child. All three the women have lost their children: Marian to cot death, Ruth to miscarriage (at least one of which is due to her husband’s violence) and Lily too, through Marian’s slow, careful investigation, reveals that her life was also centred upon a lost child.
Given the subject matter and the setting Pentecost could be hard going. In fact there are laughs aplenty; the mordant Belfast wit one hears so much about is liberally sprinkled through this play. As Ruth appears at her door having left her husband for the third time Marian complains 'I feel like the other woman with all the aggravation and none of the sex.'
The language throughout is rich and poetic, daringly so, and it is its peculiar poetry that keeps it airborne. In lesser hands the tranches of political parrying could nose dive, but Parker’s language is excitingly fresh, his characters detailed and rounded.
Both Marian and Lily are transformed by the play’s end: severe Lily is softened, ironically, by confession. Marian, emptied inside, finds hope. Both these changes are beautifully realised by the actors, Judith Roddy in particular, is remarkable in finding honesty and humour in an often unlikeable character.
Pentecost is a ghost story, as the title implies, but Lily is a decidedly physical phantom. As the play progresses, as Marian unravels her story from the diary she hid away, the lock corroding and falling apart, she becomes softer, less forbidding, more human, it seems, than she was in life.
This has been a fantastic production for the Lyric. Always immaculately dressed (and Alyson Cummins’ set and costumes are typically wonderful here) there is often a sense that the Lyric is all dressed up with no place to go. Here is a play, finally, that is worthy of it: beautifully written, directed with brio and perfectly performed. Phew!
Pentecost runs in the Lyric Theatre, Belfast until October 18.