The Weein

Red Lemon bring the curtain down on OMAC in style

It’s the end of an era. The ‘open door to fresh art’ is closing. Boards are being trod on for the last time. Send in the clowns. Do your crying in the rain … sorry I’m getting carried away, but for those of you who sensibly err on the side of the literal, the Old Museum Arts Centre is staging its last production before the costume box is packed into storage and the last stapler is accounted for in the back office.

This of course isn’t the end for the OMAC entity or indeed its striking and much loved College Square North premises, but rather a parting of the ways. With the first brick about to be laid on OMAC’s spanking new multi-million pound gaff at the back of St Anne’s and myriad rumours already flying about future uses for the Old Museum building, this could be termed by the clinically unimaginative as a ‘new beginning’.

It seems fitting that its last show captures everything that was and is great about OMAC. Indeed, what better swansong for OMAC slash calling card for the future arts factory that it will become than a new play from Red Lemon – possibly the most progressive young theatre company currently operating in these parts.

OMAC was always best when coolly getting on with the business of providing a stage for innovation and entertainment, proving in the process that it was possible to have both. Red Lemon’s The Weein, the latest slice of blackly humorous grotesquery from the prettily poisoned pen of Patrick J O’Reilly proves this for the umpteenth and last time.

Those familiar with Red Lemon will know what to expect – high energy, musical and blackly funny theatre with a minimum of fuss. While these are the base notes in any given Red Lemon production, what is striking about this relatively young company is their constant, if gradual evolution.

O’Reilly as a writer started off with a grand-guignol appetite for bloody, theatrical mayhem and freakishly cartoonish characters. That hasn’t gone, but with each Red Lemon show, the formula is incrementally refined and real attempts are made to broaden the company’s output beyond slapstick horror.

The Weein takes place in a dump where imperfect or flawed children are deposited, to be replaced in their parents’ affections by perfect designer babies. The characters that inhabit this dump have survived years of violence, deceit and exploitation – all are twisted both physically and mentally, assuming a kind of warped hierarchy with Susie Ego, and her flick knife at the top of this societal stump.

Into this environment comes the titular Weein, who claims to be perfect and insists she doesn’t belong here. There’s just days to go before the inhabitants get an opportunity to escape their subterranean hell through auction, where they can showcase themselves in front of prospective parents. The Weein, the physical embodiment of total perfection, throws the characters' carefully crafted dreams of escape into a blur with predictably shocking results.

This is Red Lemon raising questions about contemporary concepts of beauty and acceptance and the moral dilemmas raised by developments in genetic science. Its topicality is undeniable as designer babies, screened for congenital defects and physical disability are now just a phone call to a private clinic away.

But while The Weein does raise these issues, it’s not hugely successful as either a critique of or metaphor for our delusional western consumerist obsession with purchasing beauty and perfection. The dilemma for Red Lemon has always been how to mix the low comedy with the high concept, how to merge all their fantastic ingredients into something more than half-baked. With so much going on, it is a tricky balancing act, but one that with every production the company is getting better at.

That doesn’t detract from the production – as a piece of theatre it is compellingly powerful on its own, queasy terms. Like a particularly dark Dr Who episode watched while on heavy prescription drugs or a terrifying parallel universe where One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest is set in an abortion clinic, The Weein works as pure, viscerally thrilling spectacle.

The songs, by long time Red Lemon collaborator Katie Richardson are their best yet, bringing a disturbed beauty to several pivotal moments, especially Susie Ego’s creepy Cabaret-style solo number about, literally, saving face.

The entire ensemble performance from the cast of five is so strong, intuitive and compelling it elevates the play out of the realm of the absurd – a near-certain pitfall for a lesser cast.

It would be unfair to single any one actor out, so I’ll mention two instead. For carrying the comedy as the poignantly pitiful Pageant Princess, Caroline Curran deserves special mention as does Red Lemon newcomer Kerri Quinn as deranged queen of the heap Susie Ego. Her malignant and spiteful portrayal also has room for a sense of pathetic desperation, which makes Susie almost sympathetic by the end.

The set and lighting design are starkly, darkly beautiful and the inspired use of five simple, ever-shifting reversible panels creates an entire subterranean world of corridors, labyrinths and cells. They actually play a pivotal role right at the end in a denouement that, to use a crude literary allusion, finds Edgar Allen Poe rewriting the end of Josef K. But I’ve said too much!

The Weein then is the best play yet from an ever-improving young theatre company. Flawed yes, but immensely watchable and massively entertaining. There’s just days left now to catch it and with it the final act of the Old Museum Arts Centre. Roll on 2011.

Joe Nawaz

The Weein runs at OMAC Belfast until December 2 and then Down Arts Centre. For more information check out Culture Live! here.