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FringeReview Ireland 2024

Low Down

This fairy tale for the 21st century follows a boy on his journey of learning how to deal with his anxieties, manifested in the mythical creature of ‘The Gnaw’.  It does this by using physical storytelling, varied puppetry (design by Gala Tomasso), a whole gamut of props and masks (design by Orla Clogher) and the clever use of an ingenious set by Gavin Morgan. Anna Mullarkey plays and sings her original music nearly throughout the whole play, while a special bit of magic is added by Sarah Jane Shiels’ Lighting Design, which deservedly was nominated for an Irish Times Theatre Award in 2020.


The audience enters the auditorium to Mullarkey’s singing and piano playing that clearly draws inspiration from a wide variety of music styles.  The performance itself starts with a shadow theatre show.  Riordan cleverly uses an old style overhead projector, produced ca 1990, to narrate the boy’s back story.  With black cut out foils we meet Joe, a thirteen year old boy, who lives with his knitting, anarchical grandma.  Grandma never left 1968 and is still fighting against the system in the only way she knows; with insurrection.  Joe loves to sit by grandma’s bed and listen to her stories whilst she knits. The clacking of the needles have a soothing effect on Joe.  Whenever he feels anxious and the worries take over, the clack-clack of grandma’s needles calm him.  To Joe his angst is The Gnaw, a ghastly, vile looking monster that eats away at him.  The Gnaw can come at any time, out of the blue it feeds on worries and tries to take over.  However, as soon as Joe sits with his grandma and hears her knitting needles hitting each other stich after stich, The Gnaw gets weaker and disappears.  This way Joe manages to keep The Gnaw at bay until tragedy strikes and grandma gets arrested for arson.  Joe is now all alone in the world. He is sent to social services and The Gnaw has a field day.  Joe moves into foster care to Pearl, a slightly hyper cleaning fanatic.  We hear a bit about Pear’s backstory and a very much reminded that we are in Ireland.  The daughter of an impoverished farmer with undiagnosed neurodiversity she was sent to become a nun.  That wasn’t really for her and she ended up a cleaner for the local authority.  She has very strict rules that Joe tries to follow.  He also starts a new school and of course the head teacher is obsessed with hurling (an Irish field ball game played with a paddle and very similar rules to polo, without horses).  Joe is not a hurler and The Gnaw torments Joe. Of course Joe falls in love with a classmate.  He gifts her a plant to tell her that he likes her.  Alas, she doesn’t reciprocate and again The Gnaw rears his ugly head.  Alone at home, engulfed in his worries, Joe watches TV and comes across a channel that teaches knitting.  It makes him think of grandma and how much he misses her.  Joe cries and tries to elevate the pain with comfort eating.  This has only a short term positive effect.  He gets sick and feels even worse.  His only way to let the anger out is by committing arson, like his grandma.  This leads to Joe getting sent to a detention centre.  Now The Gnaw has full control over Joe.  Luckily he receives a parcel from grandma with a blanket she knitted for him.  This comfort blanket gives him strength and acts like a shield around Joe that The Gnaw cannot penetrate.  He also gets some wool and remembering the instruction rhyme from that TV show, he starts knitting himself.  Now it is the clacking of his own needle that keeps The Gnaw away.  When Pearl comes to visit him, he has a very special knitted present for her.

This is an incredible cute and heart-warming show for young and old.  It is didactic without being teachy.  In dealing with universal themes such as loneliness, stress and anxiety in various very clever ways.  Riordan, who does not only play Joe, but also the social worker, the head teacher and Pearl, uses much humour and the audience often laughed heartily.  There is more than just a dig at institutions in his caricature of the head teacher and the social worker.  Pearl on the other hand is very lovingly drawn.  Riordan breaks the fourth wall on a few occasions to great effect, letting the audience play characters, for example his love interest in school.  His way of working with people is warm and welcoming and no one feels put on the spot.  The set design is thought out meticulously and used to great effect.  The scene changes are very smooth and often feel part of the show itself.  It shows that this production has been on the road several times over the last five years.


The small and slightly tucked-out-of-the-way Smock Alley Theatre prides itself of being the oldest theatre in Dublin.  Having first opened its doors in 1662 it reopened as a theatre in 2012 after extensive renovation.  Since then it has become one of the newest and most innovative performance spaces in Ireland. Its two theatres plus a unique event space hosts festivals such as the Dublin Theatre Festival and the Irish Literature Festival.  They also partner with First Fortnight, a charity that challenges mental health stigma through arts and cultural action.  First Fortnight also hosts an annual mental health, arts and culture festival every January across the island.

This production of Selvage by Brú Theatre was part of First Fortnight’s 2024 Festival.  Brú Theatre, as the name suggests, is an intersectional company from Galway, ‘brú’ meaning as much as ‘on the verge’  It is the brain child of Artistic Director James Riordan and Producer Jill Murray, who were also behind this production with Riordan being the writer and performer. Their aim is to present bilingual, multidisciplinary work and while their artistic focus is very much rooted in the West of Ireland, they tour extensively with their productions.

Selvage, which apparently is a line of self-securing knitting, was first premiered in 2019 and was nominated for two Irish Times Theatre Awards in 2020, including best Actor for James Riordan.  It has toured in 2022 and 2023 before I saw the so far last performance on 13th January 2024.