The Scarlet WWWeb

Admirable acting and direction cannot save a weak script, as Big Telly fall victim to cliché and hungry hens

Unfortunately The Scarlet WWWeb, Big Telly’s latest show, strikes a jarring note right from the off.

At the start of the play, written by Briana Corrigan and Mary Kelly, a disembodied voice pontificates on the relationship between humanity and hens, some live examples of which are caged stage right throughout proceedings. Apparently ‘reflected back in [hens’] beady eyes are all our secrets’.

Now this is quite patently nonsense. I keep hens. Hens are quirky and great fun but their chief, overwhelming characteristic is stupidity. Look into a hen’s beady eye and you see nada beyond an interest in where the next feed is coming from.

The first half of the show is set in Ireland 100 odd years ago, at the time of the Land League, with impoverished tenant farmers agitating to abolish landlordism and for the right to own the land they work. The verb 'to boycott' comes from this period of history after an unpopular landlord’s agent, Charles Boycott, was ostracized by the local community.

For Nora (Clare McKenna), who has been saving hard to get away to America, the political upheaval is an unwelcome distraction, but for husband Donal (Vincent Higgins) it is a righteous cause offering salvation and a chance to be someone. While Nora spins yarn, ‘friend’ Peggy spins tall tales of the little people and fairy forts.

It’s shameless stage Oirish paddywhackery, which fair puts this reviewer’s teeth on edge. Big House. Check. Poteen-fuelled drunkenness? Check. Casual wife-beating? Check. More little people. Check.

Shelley Atkinson plays Peggy like Mrs Doyle’s evil twin – high-pitched shrieking hysteria with a slightly more psychopathic edge (if that were possible). If she doesn’t offer anyone a cup of tea, that’s because there is no fecking tea, nor anything else to drink apart from a drop o’poteen, and don’t be drinking that near the fairy fort, you understand.

Nora’s desire to head for the New World is certainly not hard to understand, perhaps of the I’m a Historical Cliché, Get Me Out Of Here variety. The chain of events which lead to her demise – breaking the boycott, bringing shame on her husband – is as predictable as it is melodramatic.

The denouement of the first half is less shocking than it should be, and any spell is broken by a failure to dim the lights adequately. The audience sees Nora get up from her immolation without so much as a singed eyebrow.

The second half similarly, er, misfires. The story is of an ‘affair’ by painter Martha in a virtual world My Other Life. Is the relationship real or not real, is it an affair or a playful distraction?

Actor Vincent Higgins, while not exactly at the venerable stage yet, is hard to picture as Martha’s husband, a 30-something X-box-playing ad man. The truest line in the play comes from I can’t remember whom – it could be either partner. ‘Did you feed the chickens?’ ‘They’re your bloody chickens.’

When lover Jean-Paul turns out not to be a Parisian hottie but a farmer from Kildare, and whose unexpected arrival puts the fox in the marital henhouse, the action lurches awkwardly between rom-com, melodrama and farce.

Technically, a lot of thought and effort has gone into this production. A diaphanous screen splits the stage in two, parallel to the audience, and at times the projections of rain, stars, fire et cetera onto it are extremely effective. A pulsing soundtrack, which cuts in and out sometimes enlivens the action, sometimes irritates.

The acting and direction are admirable, but ultimately The Scarlet WWWeb is let down by the script and the juxtaposition of two pieces in which it’s hard to see any meaningful connection. In both, there is a moral conundrum, a desire to escape, conflicted marriages, but, ho hum, so what? Is the message as banal as plus ca change…

That’s most definitely true of the hens, who remain nonplussed throughout the flashing lights, music, voluble acting and stage fights. Frankly, my dears, whatever the era, whatever the drama, as long as the next feed is coming they don’t give a damn.

The Scarlet WWWeb continues its tour of Ireland until November 17.