Brighton Fringe 2017
Wild Productions presents ‘Mary and Me’.
Written and performed by Irene Kelleher.
Directed by Belinda Wild.
Ireland, 1986. A 15-year-old girl dies giving birth at a grotto. But before then there’s pending maths exams, an important art project to finish. And what to do about Peter?
I very much wanted to give this piece a highly recommended rating.
The performance by Irene Kelleher is polished, highly watchable, engaging, with an intense emotional presence, commitment, confidence, timing and understanding of her material.
Winner of many five star reviews and an Argus Angel Award, for her performance of Mrs Shakespeare, Brighton Fringe 2015, Irene Kelleher returns in a new one-woman show, this time written by herself. Her first writing credit.
Again directed by Belinda Wild, who had directed Mrs Shakespeare, and is presumably connected to Mrs Shakespeare’s writer, Ian Wild.
When 15-year-old Hannah, growing up in a rural Irish town/village starts visiting the local grotto and confiding in the statue of Mary and Mary’s sidekick Mary Magdalen, we meet an energetic, funny, charming, happy and authentic 15-year-old schoolgirl, full of life, excitement, creativity, with a love of art, and a joy of being alive. A girl inspired by women down the ages, and by female early aviators in particular. We are almost immediately charmed. Well… I was.
Will Mary answer Hannah’s prayers, help her pass her looming maths test, better hear her confessions than the coughing curmudgeon of a local priest, inspire Hannah’s art and be forgiving considering all that Mary herself went through as a young girl? Will the lump of marble, that performer Kelleher makes the audience into, show understanding, compassion, and forgiveness for all the mores and foolishnesses of a headstrong 15-year-old? A child-woman tired of catechisms, of an overcrowded home, of maths, of the local priest, of always having to be there for a younger sister?
At last Hannah has found a space, where she can draw, talk, let go, recount her dreams, speak of flirtations and of love, complain of the fools in the town, of the school janitor who sees her body, of the local, but honest, lonely drunk who stinks of whiskey and smuggles it out to her in exchange for a kiss.
But slowly we see that this young flibbertigibbet has gone too far, and is thus bringing the wrath of the village, her family, the church down upon her… and now she must atone, must solve the biggest problem of her life, alone in the grotto, with only The stoney Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene to keep her company through the hardest time a woman/girl can know.
Kelleher does give a wonderful, wonderful performance from beginning to end. She embraces her main character, takes her by the hand, journeys with her throughout a year of transformation and realisation of who is there for her and who is not. And all in a venue that is doing her few favours.
Studio Two at the Warren is better than the chipboard construction of 2016, providing a metallic barrier to the worst of the noise from road and the party atmosphere that The Warren is clearly aiming to cultivate. Sadly that cultivation has been too successful, to the point that the “Festival within a Festival” is now so loud that even the new metal sides of Studio Two are as King Canute to the now heightened tides of revelling, and the usual roar of traffic along the Lewes Road. Hence, a fine performance is marred by a surfeit of external noise that the venue could have done much more to mitigate against.
If I had been a performer I would have felt distinctly challenged by this issue and perhaps more than a little concerned that I had booked and paid for a venue that was such a challenge to do work in that in any way might be sensitive, or have moments of fragility because…. there’s an even bigger party than last year going on right next door.
This isn’t a review about the venue, but it has to be said that the venue’s noise issues indeed impacted on my (and my companion’s) ability to hear and focus on the performance and the plot.
However, and here is the point of the remark, Kelleher never missed her stride once. She worked professionally, seemingly oblivious to the motorbikes, loud music, cheering, seagulls clattering on the roof, and more, remaining immersed entirely in Hannah’s story. This is very much to her credit.
Though slight, Kelleher has a powerful voice which was able to penetrate the noise and display the abandon and exuberance of Hannah…. the love of life of Hannah.
There are beautiful set pieces, including an intense pub scene where Kelleher may have ordinarily been tempted to play the various characters, but instead played the girl watching chilling events unfolding around her, and responding to them.
This worked well, as did other scenes and set pieces where she and her director, Wild, did decide that she should play other characters, and she did so with aplomb, and acute observation.
I also really enjoyed the simple staging, the use of light, and of music (80’s pop, George Michael, Wham, Madonna mixed with pious church), the simple settings and the use of clothing (to imply a growing belly or change of season).
Director Wild has a touch that is deft but clearly leaves plenty space for Kehhler’s wonderful performance skills and interpretations of her own text to fly of their own accord.
So then to the material itself. The story of Hannah. This is the first one-person show penned by Kelleher. The text is crisp, the story succinctly told, that of a young girl trapped in a town that doesn’t understand her, with seeming allies turning sometimes into seeming strangers, with only a couple of statues for company and consolation.
Inexorably we are pulled towards the tragedy which is more than hinted at in the programme. (Indeed… would I have “got it” if that programme hadn’t filled me in? Not sure.) A story a fiction based on the true story of a 15-year-old girl that Kelleher herself learned of when herself a 15-year old schoolgirl in Ireland.
Whilst her performance is gripping and compelling and worthy of highly recommended to near outstanding, the material itself, whilst beautiful, well observed, charming, poignant, timely, full of metaphors, well-drawn characters and touching humour, sending ripples of laughter repeatedly through the audience, and tears from some at the end,… still left me wanting something… more.
And it was this… in some ways, I felt that the story was not hugely original, nor the twists, turns and events particularly surprising.
I wouldn’t call the story a cliche, but it was getting close to one, in the light of stories such as the Magdalen Sisters, and Evelyn, which alongside other tales that have emerged out of Ireland over the last 30 years examine how the church, state, schools, family duty, and patriarchy brutally suppress the life expectations of young people trying to make sense of their lives, dreams and human desires. That’s not to say that another take on this familiar set of themes isn’t perfectly valid and even timely, and although the angle of a girl speaking to herself in a grotto has freshness, the tales told or the revalations aren’t so unexpected that I was… caught out, or asked to ponder something entirely new.
Meanwhile, characters were sometimes rapidly introduced in quite a number which, had they each had more airtime, and backstory assigned to them would have been easier to have been remembered as to who was who, and their part within Hannah’s life. Some were more obvious than others, some more nuanced, and some quite obscure to the point of my wondering whether I had missed a character being introduced because of the noise or simply because, as is my won’t (I like to get to know characters a little bit) I hadn’t heard enough about them before they once again vanished.
Many characters in only a 70-minute show, all portrayed by one person, either by being talked about, or being portrayed through action, is quite a lot to follow and keep up with. It’s definitely possible, but somehow I felt I was being whizzed over too many, or returning too rarely or too superficially, to some to deepen my connection with them.
Noise doesn’t help, but we met what felt like many characters, so many of whom seemed to have had an impactful part in Hannahs life and heart, some of them referred to so fleetingly as to be hard to be completely clear as to where they’ve come from.
E.g. Connor/Connell? who quite quickly appeared as the likely gay male platonic friend of Peter (Hannah’s boyfriend) and ending up at the wrong end of dire implications in the pub scene.
Or a father who (although clearly a big presence for Hannah, the village, and for the gathered crowd at the end of the pub scene) had had, from what I can remember, little or no presence or introducton any time before or after said scene and therefore made me wonder, should I have known more about him, or have I missed something here?
Although we revisited several characters, in that briefly sometimes we see a repeat-edition idiosyncrasy of this person once more, I yearned for a deeper development of that supporting character’s story to keep me more engaged.
Sometimes too, and this is a very minor point, but I felt that there was a little bit of namedropping of classic authors and some of their quotes. I felt I was being encouraged to take this writer seriously by an implied association with these great writers. This happened perhaps one too many times to the point where I began to notice and question it. Maybe t’was nothing.
I feel that the performer is a truly excellent crafts-person, knowing exactly how to use her voice (in terms of volume, tone, rhythm, enunciation), how to use the stage, the space, the rhythms of the writing, and her own emotional presence and response to a story that has clearly touched her. In as much I felt very safe in her hands as a performer.
I don’t feel that the writer has yet found her voice or her craft yet nearly as strongly, but as a first outing… it’s pretty good, and once the two match… she’s going to be a force to be reckoned with!
I feel churlish not being more positive about the material, and it is definitely a wonderful first outing for the writer, and certainly brilliant vehicle for the performer. I would definitely recommend seeing this piece, would definitely want to see this writer’s next piece and highly recommend seeing this performer’s next piece, and feel it’s a genuine honour to have witnessed this actor in… action!