Tinderbox Bring Unhome to The MAC

Tinderbox Theatre Company bring Jimmy McAleavey's elusive psychological drama to The MAC

Unhome. It’s a small title, coined to strike silent fear into the human heart. Home: a haven or a hell? Home:  place of refuge or a place of risk? Unhome: the anthesis of home.

These paradoxes form the core of Jimmy McAleavey’s new play for Tinderbox, an elusive psychological drama swirling around a situation described by the writer himself as 'anti-dramatic’. Its focus is the relationship between Cait, an elderly woman who has raised her granddaughter Kitty since the death of the girl’s mother many years previously.

In the absence of her father, whose whereabouts are unknown, Kitty finds solace and security in Cait's cluttered old house, whose walls have witnessed a plethora of events down the years, some joyful, some less so.

'It’s a play about scary stuff,' says McAleavey, grinning mischievously. 'It’s about love, but also about the darkness at the heart of love. I wanted to write about some of the extreme psychological experiences that a lot of us go through in any so-called ’normal’ situation. It’s about being at home and in hell - simultaneously.'

The powerful publicity image shows a segment of a prettily decorated room, whose ornate wallpaper is torn away to reveal an unnerving and despairing scribble beneath. It speaks volumes of a home place where all appears to be sweetness and light but where uncomfortable truths lurk beneath the sheeny surface.

'The relationship between the two women is key,' says director Mick Duke, who, together with McAleavey and Tinderbox dramaturg Hanna Slättne, has devoted much analytical thought and consideration into the careful development of the script.

'Cait is an absolute dote, a loving grandmother, who has raised Kitty since infancy. But it was interesting in doing development on the play - and subsequently in the rehearsal room - the different ways in which feelings about Cait emerged. Questions have arisen about whether she is manipulative or genuine, what has been the deep-rooted effect she has had on Kitty.

'We’ve been blessed with our cast. In Helena Bereen and young Clare McMahon we have two actresses who are beginning to find a way through their difficult roles in a really thrilling way. It would be easy to make Kitty exotic in her experiences, to crank up the emotions and take the piece down a Hammer House of Horrors path. In bringing a story like this to the stage, the actors, the writer, the director, the production team between them have to find a middle way.'

This is the second time that McAleavey, a former journalist, has teamed up with Tinderbox. Their first collaboration was on The Sign of the Whale, a tantalisingly surreal drama set inside the belly of a whale, washed into the watery underground world of Belfast at the height of the Troubles.

Irish Theatre Magazine described it as 'an entertaining and engaging piece of work that uses the metaphor of the whale to express the distance travelled since the 1970s... and a consequent optimism for further positive change in Northern Ireland'.

The hallmark of that piece was its tone of world-weary cynicism overlaid with dark humour, carrying discernible hints of its writer’s professional background. Several plays later – and from the perspective of his more recent role as a creative writing lecturer at Queen’s University Belfast – McAleavey’s style may have become more spare and streamlined, but his natural instincts remain as acute and sharply tuned as ever.

'I’ve tried to write about what I thought was the truth in this relationship,' he reflects. 'It’s complex and nobody can really know it except those concerned. I’ve tried to explore that sense of mother/grandmother as nurturer or torturer – or both – but not by making it an issue, not in some way thinking I could help or put it out in the public arena as a subject for discussion. Yes, I suppose I am writing it as a journalist, reporting on what I see, not concocting a fiction or making the facts lurid or purient, simply asking what is the truth here.

'In a close, interdependent relationship like the one shared by Cait and Kitty, there is much that remains unsaid. There are things in the past, and the present, that can’t be said, that can’t even be thought. The challenge is in getting the audience to feel, to share in Kitty’s journey, to go into the dark places with her.

'Her journey is about getting closer to the truth. Because she is so terrified she is driven to do almost anything to alleviate that terror. In turn I want audiences to feel her experiences truthfully and without manipulation. I guess I’m asking for personal investment and, you know, that depends on each individual’s mood on the night. Sometimes you’re up for it, sometimes you’re not.'

The action is set in North Belfast and takes place over a four-week period, when, without warning, the safe confines of Kitty’s cosy cocoon start to crumble. As Duke observes, the piece is a tribute to the female instinct for survival, a quality which unexpectedly brought him right back to his own family situation.

'Women are incredible at surviving,' he observes. 'My own mother was a widow for well over thirty years. For a lot of that time she lived alone. She was born in the 1920s and, like Cait, was of country stock, strong, stoic, sometimes sharp tongued. In her situation, a man would have been hopeless. A man would have capitulated.

'In Cait we have a highly complex character; her relationship with Kitty has grown out of that complexity. In production terms, we have to try to make sure we create the right tone and meaning. We don’t want to sensationalise the story in trying to dramatise something that is internal and, as Jimmy has said, essentially anti-dramatic.'

In the midst of so much psychological turmoil and examination, one would be forgiven for assuming that there are precious few laughs.

'There is one,’ grins Duke. 'Yes, one,' agrees McAleavey, before his director gleefully informs him that it is not the same laugh that he was expecting, at which point an amusing bit of banter ensues between the two.

'It’s a very sweet moment in the play,' says Duke. 'I thought it was really important that the two women would share a joke and convey the warmth and depth of their love for each other. The piece has come a long way. Some writers would call a second canter through a script a second draft and it is rare to come across something that has gone through such massive change as this has.

'It has gone through three completely different explorations,' says McAleavey. 'I have had very many sleepless nights in the process. It didn’t leave me alone for two and a half years. It haunted me. I knew these people early on, these two women. Then came the task of structuring their story, of delving into dark corners and exposing what lies within, trying to get to the nub of a painful, problematic situation.'

Unhome runs at The MAC, Belfast from November 11 – 22.