Castlewellan Castle provides the backdrop for Maria Connolly's new heartwarming portrayal of one of its most remarkable residents

A commemorative blue plaque at the entrance to Castlewellan Castle signals the fact that Lady Mabel Marguerite Annesley (25 February 1881 - 19 June 1959), artist and wood engraver, spent her formative years here on this beautiful estate in the shadow of the Mourne Mountains in County Down.

The plaque caught the eye of actor/writer Maria Connolly, when she was on a family camping holiday nearby. She was struck by the fact that, back in Victorian times, this aristocratic, home-tutored woman not only acquired professional skills largely considered to be a male preserve but went on produce high quality works, many of which are still to be found in prestigious public collections like the British Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the National Gallery of Canada and the Museum of New Zealand.

Connolly promptly set out to discover more about this extraordinary figure, who was, in so many ways, far ahead of her time. The result is Mabel, a heartwarming dramatisation of the life of a shy, self-effacing girl, whose life was punctuated by both privilege and personal tragedy. 

The adventure begins at the richly carved pillars of the Annesley Estate on an autumn morning to die for. Winding one’s way along a tree-lined driveway ablaze with seasonal colours and late summer shrubs, the audience is led into a formal garden, where an elegant woman sits dreaming of home.

This is Mabel, now living out the late stages of her life in Suffolk but with the rolling hills and pasturelands of Mourne Country indelibly etched into her mind. She tells us that she has always viewed the world through the eyes of an artist, now more so than ever.

Her grandchild - the first of a whole host of characterisations delivered by the versatile Jo Donnelly - attempts to give her reassurance and comfort, but it is that great grey castle in the Irish countryside, with the mountains rearing up behind, which occupies her restless imagination.

In the course of an hour-long navigation through Kabosh’s site-specific production, Mabel becomes both our guide and our conscience. Played by Connolly herself, it soon becomes clear that, under Paula McFetridge’s gentle direction, this piece is very much a labour of love.

Mabel 2

Not only are we invited into the private life of a remarkable individual, but through her we experience at first hand the way in which wealthy Anglo-Irish landowners like the Annesleys handed down through the generations their genuine love and affection for their home place and the devoted people who worked there. 

We share her grief as we watch her beloved mother leave this world when Mabel was ten years old. We watch with trepidation as she gives her heart to a 'penniless sailor', Lieutenant Gerald Sowerby, who died at sea after just nine years of marital happiness.

We hope, like her, that her philandering son, little Gerald, will be the worthy successor of the estate his forebears have built. We follow her gaze towards the majesty of the constantly changing mountain landscape which inspired her. And we tremble as malign forces close in and Castlewellan’s future existence is threatened.

This is a genuine Downton Abbey story of how money, influence and social standing can fall prey to political events. While Mabel acknowledges that in the world outside the castle walls, she is perceived as British, Protestant and unionist, she is no snob.

Indeed, in Connolly’s charming, slightly tremulous portrayal, she is far more at home in the company of her much-loved estate manager Fish, than with her flighty stepmother Priscilla and her stepsister Constance Malleson, a fashionable actress of the day who was the mistress of the writer and pacifist Bertrand Russell.

Connolly and Donnelly have worked together on a number of productions over the years and their instinctive understanding is clearly in evidence. Mabel’s journey is punctuated by Ursula Burns’s well-chosen songs, performed unaccompanied and, sometimes, in close harmony. Music determines mood, whether via a jaunty donkey ride across the meadows, a nostalgic homecoming from foreign lands or her first joyful dance with Gerald. 

Connolly provides an engaging constancy as the central character, while Donnelly, at the switch of accent, body language and very basic costume changes - an area where a little more imagination could be employed - pulls out all the stops as the important figures in this story of an extraordinary life, lived well.

Mabel concludes its first run of performances tonight (October 29) before two more on November 7 and 14. For tickets visit Down Arts Centre or contact 028 4461 0747.