Theatre highlights of 2018

The best plays to come to Galway over the past 12 months

Garrett Lombard and Niall Buggy in Druid's production of Sonja Kelly's Furniture.

Garrett Lombard and Niall Buggy in Druid's production of Sonja Kelly's Furniture.

AND SO ends another year of theatre-going, a year of big shows, small shows, professional shows, amateur shows, local shows, and visiting shows. Rather than doing a general review of the year past, I shall focus on the shows I enjoyed most from those I saw.

Furniture (Druid )

Richard III was Druid’s big show of the year but Sonya Kelly’s Furniture was the one I most enjoyed most. Directed by Cathal Cleary, it comprised three short two-handers, all revolving around an item of furniture, it had many laugh-out loud moments, zinger lines, sharp insights and moments of touching tenderness. Garret Lombard and Clare Monnelly played a married couple bickering at an art exhibition; Aisling O’Sullivan and Rebecca O’Mara were a lesbian couple planning to move in together after just a few weeks of knowing each other; and Niall Buggy and Peter Campion portrayed a dying gay man and his nephew who is helping sort out his will. Aisling O’Sullivan was brilliant as an interior design fanatic who learns with horror that her new girlfriend is a hippy with tastes the opposite of her own. Furniture returns to the Town Hall on April 5 and 6 as part of a national tour.

Class (Iseult Golden and David Horan, with the Abbey Theatre )

One of the visitors to GIAF, Class was an outstanding piece of theatre. It centred on a classroom meeting between estranged working class parents (Stephen Jones and Sarah Morris ) and their son’s middle class teacher (Will O’Connell ) that began as sparky social comedy but steadily became more serious as it took in the pain of marital separation and frictions of class differences. Brilliantly directed by its writers and performed by the cast of three, Class was funny, thought-provoking, and moving from first to last.

The Hired Man (Galway Musical Society )

GMS and director Paul Norton delivered a terrific staging of The Hired Man, based on Melvyn Bragg's novel of Cumbrian rural and industrial life in the first quarter of the 20th century. Scored by Howard Goodall, it is a sweeping family saga centred on the couple John and Emily Tallentire whose journey takes in farm work, coal mining and the First World War as well as strains on their marriage and the death of their son on the battlefields of France.

Goodall’s score combines folk airs, brass bands and church hymns, and was beautifully rendered by the 10-piece GMS orchestra under the musical direction of Shane Farrell. Dave Langan and Ann O’Donnell excelled in the central roles of John and Emily Tallentire in a hugely enjoyable production, with great performances and songs from first to last.

Una (Elaine Mears )

Admittedly this play is still a work in progress, but the staging it received at Galway Theatre Festival signalled that it could be something special. Elaine Mears’ Una explores the life of one of Galway’s legendary figures, Una Taaffe. The show offers a multi-faceted, richly imagined and deeply humane portrait of a remarkable woman. It draws on photographs, video, voice recordings (including one tape of Una herself ), anecdotes and memories to portray a life that was eventful, glamorous, and, in its latter years, desperately sad.

Una’s many acts of kindness are a recurrent motif of the play and it was good to be reminded of them to counter the more superficial image of her as an elderly eccentric attended by her motly pack of dogs. Jennifer Cunningham contributed brilliant videography to the production and there were fine performances from Yvette Picque and Máire Daly. Una will be fully unveiled next year; I, for one, cannot wait to see the final version.

Dancing at Lughnasa (Blue Teapot )

Blue Teapot presented what was by far their most ambitious stage production to date, Brian Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa, directed by Petal Pilley. With a cast of top-notch Galway talent, a wonderful design by Sabine Dargent and lovely musical score by Brendan O’Regan, the production was a joy from beginning to end. The show was also a landmark in Irish theatre with its casting of Jennifer Cox, who has Down Syndrome, in the role of Rose Mundy, the ‘simple’ sister, and this choice also was entirely vindicated in Cox’s strong performance.

Diarmuid de Faoite framed and punctuated the play’s action with his sensitively nuanced narration, Emma O’Grady garnered plenty of laughs as the drolly funny sister Maggie, Grace Kiely warmly portrayed Rose’s special protector, Agnes, and Hillary Kavanagh also shone as Kate, the head of the house whose stern exterior hides a sensitive heart. This latter was vividly illustrated in the play’s famous dance sequence where she danced alone, expressing some deeply private yearning and rapture.

Wit (Galway Youth Theatre & Galway Community Theatre )

Margaret Edson’s Wit is an absorbing and moving portrayal of one woman’s very human struggle with illness, pain, and the fearful onset of death. In keeping with its title, it also has its share of wit and humour amid the suffering. Andrew Flynn’s fine production served Edson’s play very well indeed, especially with a superb central performance from Mary McHugh as Vivian Bearing, the literature professor afflicted with terminal ovarian cancer.

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