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FringeReview Ireland 2024

The Pull of the Stars

The Gate Theatre

Genre: Drama, Mainstream Theatre, New Writing, Theatre

Venue: The Gate Theatre


Low Down

Emma Donoghue has been writing contemporary and historical fiction, screen plays and of course for the stage.  This is her ninth play, based on her book of the same name and it is a wonderful addition to the cannon.  Taking its title from the historic believe that epidemics were caused by the forces emitted by stars, it is unashamedly feminist without being preachy.  Donoghue tells a the stories of six women from very different walks of life, who find themselves thrown together in isolation in an attic


Set over three late autumn days in 1918, we follow the lives six Dublin women.  There is Nurse Julia Power (Sarah Morris), who mostly left on her own tries her best to provide care to her patients.  There is Della Garrett (India Mullen) a snobby Southsider in her late 20s, who just cannot understand how the other half lives.  She is so arrogant, she doesn’t feel the need to even try to understand.  And then there is working-class Mary Tierney (Ciara Byrne) a teenage wife, who works in a munitions factory.  It is her first pregnancy and it quickly becomes apparent, that she knows next to nothing about child birth.  Both women are isolated from the other patients on the maternity ward since they display flu symptoms.  In pops Dr Kathleen Lynn (Maeve Fitzgerald), a suffragette, but also an Irish revolutionary, who was involved in the Easter Rising and did time for it.  Now, she is again wanted by the police, but with the second, more deadly wave of Spanish Flu sweeping the land, she has no time for that.  And then there is Sister Luke (Ruth McCabe), who is much older than the rest and with views that probably would have already felt old-fashioned in the 1880s.  She comes in, says things for which you just want to punch her, and leaves.  One never has the feeling she really contributes to the running of the ward.  Nurse Power is just getting her head around how she is going to deal with those two women on her own, when from the Home across the road 23 year old Bridie Sweeney (Ghaliah Conroy) wheels in the delirious Honor Noonan (Úna Kavanagh) in a chair. Both are in the care of Sister Luke’s order, but when after three days of labour Honor’s case gets too complicated, she is dumped on the hospital.  Bridie is excited by these new surroundings and decides to stick around instead of going back to the Home’s laundry.  She is quick witted and picks up things easily.  Bridie clearly has a talent for nursing, but as an orphan, she is unable to raise the funds to attempt any training.  Honor’s condition is now very serious and Della is less than pleased when she has to vacate her bed to accommodate the increasingly ailing pauper.  While Honor is delirious and Mary is obstructed and unable to deliver her baby, Della’s daughter is unexpectedly delivered, early and sadly stillborn.  Only Nurse Power’s quick action save the mother’s life.  Dr Lynn, who arrives after the event expresses her admiration and suggests Julia should train as a physician.  Only, like Bridie, she hasn’t got the funds for further training.  At last Honor delivers her little baby boy, but she dies soon after of flu related complications.  In this claustrophobic atmosphere Bridie and Julia Power get closer and an early romance blossoms.  It is cut short by Bridie contracting Spanish flu and dying quickly in Julia’s arms.  The only one who gets out of this just about all right is Mary who eventually delivers her child and slowly settles into motherhood.  Juliet decides to take Honor’s baby home with her to give him a better life than Bridie and his mum had.

Byrne gives a sensitive portrayal of the still very innocent and sweet Mary for her debut at The Gate. Garrett, who is also in her first production at this theatre, is very convincing as Della.  In the beginning her character is mean and condescending, but when fate deals her a blow, we see a vulnerable and actually quite lonely little rich girl.  Kavanagh successfully stirs compassion in us for Honor with her intense presence and extreme physicality of her suffering despite havig next to no lines due to Honor’s delirium. Conroy, who also appears for the first time on this stage, is a lively and loveable Bridie, who is full of wonder for a world that has treated her so badly. Her character is in stark contrast to Fitzgerald’s outwardly austere Dr Lynn. She has this shell of toughness that clearly was created to survive in a hostile patriarchal world, deep down we can feel love and care bubbling.  This is not the case with McCabe’s Sister Luke who is portrayed as a bitter old woman, who has neither compassion nor understanding for any of the women, especially those in her care.  Morris feels very much like the sun around which all other characters gravitate.  She is full of deep feeling and love and she gives it freely, but there is no one who reciprocate until she meets Bridie.  We sense that she doesn’t expect much from life. Yet, despite or maybe because of this, she stays kind hearted and caring. Lowe managed to create a wonderful company with each individual having the perfect skillset to bring this story to life.

Alyson Cummins created a visually pleasing and effective set.  The backdrop are the gables and chimney stacks of neighbouring houses in rough brick.  It becomes the roof top on which Bridie and Juliet fall in love.  For the ward scenes huge shelves are pushed in from the side, crammed full with potion bottles in all shapes and sizes, the light reflecting in their multi coloured contents.  The lower shelves offer storage room for various props that are needed throughout the play.  The props department did an exceptional job creating the dolls representing the newborns and also the more gory aspects of childbirth.  Joan O’Clery who describes her research for the costumes in the program manages with her attention of detail, not only to evoke the historical period, but also the varied social economic situation of the characters.

A long overdue drama giving an unsentimental view of labour and birth in an easily accessible way.  While set just over hundred years ago, recent scandals remind us that there is still much medical abuse and violence around pregnancy and birth.

I attended the second preview of this production, which already felt as tight and secure as if it had been running for weeks. The audience was very enthusiastic and gave a deserved standing ovation.

Before entering we were offered a now thankfully pretty standard trigger warning: ‘THE PULL OF THE STARS is set in a maternity ward and explores the connection between birth and death. Contains descriptions and depictions of medical procedures, and references to child abuse.’ This was all I knew before I entered the auditorium and started reading the program. While for some, sadly often white middle class men, trigger warnings are seen as a waste of time and space, I am sure many who attend this production are grateful for it.  So was I.  Surprisingly, I very often had to think of my late grandma, who in the 1950s miscarried in the second trimester due to flu.  Even today, many don’t know how serious a flu infection can be for someone who is pregnant.  For some people seeing this play may be a wake-up call, for others it might feel that at last they are heard.