All Souls' Night
The characters are emotionally starved, but the audience is left replete by the ambigious ending
The opening scene of All Souls' Night, the classic Joseph Tomelty play first performed in 1948, and revived now to mark Tomelty's centenary, is familiar. It is a bleak, spartan cottage interior, with an oil lamp on the mantelpiece, a bare scrubbed table and an old, stooped woman coddling over the open fire.
It is All Souls' Night, when the dead are said to return to their homes. Kathrine Quinn (played by the playwright's daughter, Roma Tomelty) is remembering her son Stephen, drowned a year ago in the treacherous waters of Strangford Lough. But Kathrine is no pitiful grieving mother.
It quickly emerges that she is a harsh, embittered woman, consumed by greed. While her family goes unloved and neglected, she is forever checking the substantial contents of her savings book.
John Quinn (Gordon Fulton), her husband, is an illiterate fisherman. He is consumed by thoughts of his first and only love. She was a woman who could 'throw back her head and laugh like a blackbird', in stark contrast to his cold, taciturn wife.
Kathrine's surviving son, Michael, is full of rage at the deprivations of his upbringing, when he was left to go hungry. He now demands that his mother make amends by lending him the money to buy a new fishing boat, so that he can drag himself and his fiancee, Molly, out of poverty.
This is a dark play that seems well suited to the short, dark days before Christmas.
Each member of the Quinn family is emotionally starved and Kathrine appears to be the source of this evil. When Michael remonstrates with her for holding on to her hoard of money, she retaliates with spitting invective. She lauds the dead Stephen and his qualities, telling Michael that 'God took the wrong one'.
Gradually we learn that the roots of this trouble go back much further. Kathrine herself is damaged. She was abandoned as a baby under a beech tree and grew up without a mother's love.
Try as she might, she is unable to find any tenderness inside herself for her husband or her sons. Kathrine's obsession with holding on to her money at all costs seems less like straightforward greed and more like an attempt to find some kind of solid certainty or protection in a loveless world.
The effects are no less damaging for all that. Her incessant quest for more money, always more money, effectively sent her first son to his death. It will not end, it seems, until the whole family is destroyed.
There are moments of hope in the play. Molly – ably played in this Centre Stage Theatre Company production by Rosie McClelland – is a kind, principled girl, full of life and vigour and love for Michael. She spreads joy around her, soothing the cantankerous Kathrine and bringing light to the eyes of sad John when she offers to teach him to read.
Yet it's all the more poignant to see her liveliness when you know that it, too, will soon be crushed by this family's curse. Michael (Mark Claney) has been infected by his mother's desperate greed. His actions lead to the terrible – yet inevitable – denouement of the play. The crisis, when it comes, is morally ambivalent. Is it the fault of the savage greedy mother, or the bitter ambitious son?
Ostensibly this is a play about the terrible effects of poverty. As Kathrine's sons finally realise, it was 'the whinge of poverty that drowned her soul, drowning out the finer things'. But it is at least as much about the impoverishment of the heart.
All Souls' Night is a tragic tale of the way lovelessness can be handed down like a silent plague, stifling joy and trust and hope. In this play, written more than half a century ago, Tomelty has found a universal truth: 'Kindness must be kindled.'
All Souls' Night runs at the Lyric Theatre until December 3