The Playhouse finish the City of Culture year with Jennifer Johnston's trio of powerful plays
Derry~Londonderry’s Playhouse has provided an impressive series of productions for City of Culture 2013, including, most recently, Sam Shepherd’s much lauded new play A Particle of Dread. But in Jennifer Johnston’s Three Monologues, the Playhouse’s final offering of the year, it has kept the best to the last.
At the premiere, the award-winning Irish novelist declares herself delighted with Catriona McLaughlin’s new production. The rarely performed monologues – ‘Twinkletoes’, ‘Christine’ and ‘Mustn’t Forget High Noon’, in order of performance – were written by Johnston between 1989 and 1994 in response to the Northern Ireland Troubles. Each views the life of a ‘victim’ from her/his own unique perspective.
In the first the speaker is Karen, the wife of an IRA ‘lifer’ in the Maze. In the other two, there is Christine – the middle-aged widow of Billy, a country farmer and recently murdered part-time member of the UDR – and then Billy himself, speaking shortly before his murder, looking back over his own life growing up in a border area, his marriage to Christine, and the loss of his childhood friend Tommy, another UDR officer, murdered by the IRA.
The monologues are presented in two different formats: evening performances in the Playhouse itself, and then more interestingly, five afternoon performances, when the audience is ‘bussed’ to three mystery locations. These ‘bussings’ are carried out with scrupulous attention to period detail, the coach sound system playing 1980s hits interspersed with radio news reports from the early years of the Thatcher era.
The mystery locations – a terrace house in Marlborough Street and then a farmhouse kitchen and a barn in Carrigans, County Donegal – give an extra groundedness and reality to the monologues by placing them in environments that match the lives of the speakers. The props are equally effective, with 80s paraphernalia, such as a contemporary television set, creating the scene in Christine’s sparse, old fashioned kitchen.
The performances by all three actors are outstanding. Karen (Helen Behan) in ‘Twinkletoes’ is a woman in her mid-30s returning home alone from her daughter’s wedding, tipsy and talking to herself. We gather that she is the wife of a man regarded as a hero in her local community, but that she resents the loss of the full life she might have had, and the other children she might have borne, had her husband Declan not been imprisoned.
It has, she reflects, ‘f*cking well ruined my life and your own too’. She toys wistfully with the idea that ‘Twinkletoes’, her neighbour’s husband and ‘a grand dancer’ in his younger days, might have been persuaded to come back to the house with her. Throughout, Behan powerfully conveys Karen’s sense of being trapped by her own situation and by the expectations of her community.
Karen was gaudily dressed for a wedding. By contrast Christine (Gina Moxley), the speaker in the second monologue, is dressed sensibly in ‘twin-set’ and tartan skirt, and continually wipes invisible particles of dust from surfaces in the family kitchen. She is about to leave the farm where she has spent all of her married life for an unknown life in the city.
We learn that she married young and never ‘worked’. Although Church of Ireland, she became a Presbyterian when she married Billy. They couldn’t have children. The doctors in the hospital told her that it was Billy’s problem and not hers, but ‘I never had the heart to tell Billy what they said’.
Her life with Billy has been companionable and mundane, taken up latterly with the care of her elderly father-in-law. She doesn’t complain though, and even occasionally reveals a wry sense of humour, as when she describes the death of her father-in-law that followed swiftly after the death of her husband as getting ‘two for the price of one’. It is an undemonstrative and low-key performance from Moxley, but moving nonetheless.
In the third monologue, the speaker is Christine’s husband Billy (Pat Lynch). We are to suppose that he is speaking in the weeks before his murder. Set in the farmhouse barn where he occasionally escapes for a ‘smoke’, Billy’s monologue conveys a sense of the world as simple yet uncomplicated, in which, like the cowboy films of his boyhood, there are ‘goodies and baddies’.
The reference in the title is to Billy’s favourite film, ‘High Noon’, and his adolescent infatuation (daring for a Protestant farm boy) with the upper-class and Catholic Grace Kelly.
Lynch’s performance – given in a strong, rural Ulster accent to an audience sitting on hay-bales wrapped in blankets and sipping hot soup – is a tour de force. His is the most varied and conversational of the monologues, singing Orange favourites – ‘On the green grassy slopes of the Boyne’ – and songs from films, mimicking his family and friends, and, in more reflective moments, talking about his life with Christine, whom he innocently, but unresentfully, assumes is the cause of their childlessness.
We see that his fateful decision to join the UDR, against the wishes of his wife, was as much a ‘living out’ of the cowboy fantasies of his childhood as it was following in the footsteps of his father (a ‘B’ man in the Specials during the 1950s). Johnston’s achievement in the monologue, and Lynch’s in this performance, is to make Billy a believable, humourous and sympathetic figure, albeit, as we already know, a doomed one.