Nuala McKeever's two-hander explores life in an institution, but Tara West is left bewildered
Premiering at the Courtyard Theatre, Ballyearl, Belongings has lofty ambitions. Written by Nuala McKeever, this ‘darkly comic’ play sets out to explore the ‘human need for conflict and the absurdity of personal identity’, according to the programme. I’m curious to discover how Northern Ireland’s Queen of Comedy tackles these impressive-sounding themes.
McKeever plays Juliette, a recently disgraced public figure who has been installed at the Sunny Uplands mental health facility to share a room with enigmatic inmate Zoe, played by Katie Tumelty. Out of her depth in an alien environment and stripped of her personal belongings, Juliette must ‘confront the two things she’s been avoiding all her life – fear and porridge’.
Given the weighty themes with which McKeever sets out her stall, you may think that Belongings is an intimate and compassionate portrait of a breakdown, using humour to amplify tragedy. Unfortunately, this is not the case, and McKeever misses the opportunity to prove that her talents extend far beyond comedy actress and celeb-for-hire.
When the curtain opens before a half-full theatre, it becomes clear that McKeever has resurrected a character from her eponymous BBC sketch show - painfully posh Hilary Hamilton from Holywood - and jammed an Iris Robinson-style predicament on top. That’s as subtle as it gets.
In a sparse institutional setting, Juliette wears her own clothes, jewellery and fluffy slippers. She has a handbag, lipstick, hairbrush, mirror, turban and sunglasses, and there are glamorous throws and cushions on her bed. Isn’t she supposed to have lost her belongings? Isn’t that one of the problems she faces?
Are Juliette and Zoe stuck in a secure psychiatric unit, prison or each other’s idea of hell? Sadly - frustratingly - we never find out. Nor do we discover why Zoe is there at all. With so many unanswered questions, she feels like a one-dimensional device created to instigate conflict, enigmatic only because she is half a character. Tumelty’s talents are wasted.
There are a wealth of baffling inconsistencies and random developments in the plot, and Sapphic overtones. In the final scene, Juliette and Zoe perform a towel-waving dance in the style of Morecambe and Wise, and I am totally lost. At the end, there is applause but no encore, and silence descends as the theatre empties. I suspect everyone is as bewildered as I am.
Belongings seems to have been influenced by Sartre’s Huis Clos or Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, but the chaos of this piece is too uncontrolled to be artful. There are some funny lines, but the big themes are explored in a light, tokenistic way. Overall, the script feels unfinished and undisciplined.
Diehard McKeever fans might be satisfied with the slapstick comedy and a celebrity fix, but to me the play is incoherent and at times self-indulgent. McKeever had the opportunity to challenge cynicism and create a deeper understanding of a flawed public figure, while still making us laugh, but she missed it. I’m not sure she even knew it was there.