The Hen Night Epiphany at Town Hall

FIVE WOMEN, one hen night, and too many secrets. These are the key ingredients of Jimmy Murphy’s latest play, The Hen Night Epiphany, which comes to the Town Hall next week in a production from Dublin’s Focus Theatre.

Directed by Joe Devlin, this is a heart-lifting tale of five women who meet up for a night of fun and laughter that ultimately leaves their lives turned upside down.

A week before the wedding of her dreams, a woman wonders if some secrets should never be kept no matter what the cost. Bride-to-be Una is joined in her countryside home by her two best friends, her future mother-in-law, and her fiancé’s godmother for an evening of girly diversion and bonding.

As the evening unfolds and the drinks go down, painful home truths emerge and the play delivers what Irish Theatre Magazine described as ‘an arresting look at the way women respond to crisis, and how they respond to one another’.

Women, men, and intense emotions

The Hen Night Epiphany marks something of a departure for author Jimmy Murphy. His best-known plays, Brothers of the Brush and Kings of the Kilburn High Road, explored worlds of exclusively male society and companionship whereas his new play examines female relationships.

“Jimmy wanted to try something different,” says Focus artistic director Joe Devlin over a morning phone call. “As an artist he doesn’t want to be standing still, he wanted to push the envelope and test his own talent.

“That can be a risky process but because we’re a relatively small company we can actually take on that kind of risk whereas larger venues might shy away from it. So we were able to give Jimmy the time and the space to make it work.”

Devlin has been Focus’s artistic director for the past 10 years. A native of Belfast he has a strong background in new writing, working on early plays by notable authors like Gary Mitchell and Owen McCafferty. He subsequently joined the Abbey as an assistant director under Patrick Mason and, in 2002, took up the reins at Focus where he retains a strong commitment to nurturing new plays.

Devlin and Jimmy Murphy have known each other for 20 years but Hen Night Epiphany is their first time working together. It was also Murphy’s first time working with Focus and its Stanislavski-based approach, but the collaboration proved a fruitful one.

“Jimmy was very excited by the working process of bringing the script to stage,” Devlin recalls. “We workshopped it over a period of two years and the rehearsal period spanned a couple of months so he was able to observe the actors as they reached into the depth of the play’s language and steadily grew into the parts. As the work progressed he would flesh out the script further in response to that. It was a very satisfying experience for us all and as a result of how well it went we’ll also be doing Jimmy’s next play.”

The play has struck a chord with audiences, male and female, as Devlin reveals.

“The response has been extraordinary,” he says. “The women who come to the play tell us Jimmy has succeeded in getting into the female psyche. I’d describe the play as a comedy with a dark centre, there are dark secrets that emerge over the course of the play.

“One of the themes the play deals with is that of violence by men against women. We had one man talk to us afterward about the impact it had on him; he was a divorcee and at times in his marriage he had been violent but he’d never fully realised the impact of that behaviour. Seeing the play and the way it explored that issue brought it all home to him and he said how sorry he now felt for what he had done.

“We also met an 84-year-old woman whose husband had been violent to her and it stunted her emotionally to the extent that she felt unable to cry. For her, seeing the play put her in touch again with those long-buried emotions and helped to release them.”

Interestingly, Devlin discloses that Focus is also working on a production that looks at domestic violence from a different angle. “We’re currently developing a show comprising three one-acts by Andy Hinds that looks at the phenomenon of violence by women against men, which also happens but is something of a taboo subject.”

As for Hen Night Epiphany, Devlin contends the productions success in connecting with its audience stems directly from Focus’s use of Stanislavski’s theories.

“Our actors are encouraged to delve into the emotional and spiritual depths of their characters to a degree that a more conventional approach mightn’t achieve,” he says. “It’s all about bringing people to private moments within themselves and that process can help people heal themselves and also the wider community.”

Aside from the work of his actors, Devlin also makes a point of saluting the contribution of set designer Sonia Haccius.

“In Sonia’s design it’s like the house where the action takes place is an extension of the psyche,” he says. “Her design is quite surreal, there is this gnarled flooring, the roof has clouds, the structure of the house is like a landscape and the women are helping Una clean up her house or her landscape. It embodies or illustrates the idea that life is transitory, delicate, in the moment, and we’re all just moving through it.”

The presidential connection

Hen Night Epiphany has a strong cast, including Anne Kent, Margaret Toomey, and Lisa Harding as Una. It also features two Galway actors - Deborah Wiseman and Sinead Hackett.

Devlin highlights some other notable Galway inputs to the Focus: “Our new First Lady, Sabina Higgins, was one of the founders of the Focus back in the 1960s. She was one of the panel of people who interviewed me when I went for the artistic director job here. Herself and Michael D have always been staunch supporters of the company, as had Michael Diskin at the Town Hall, he has facilitated a number of touring shows from us down the years.”

Next year marks a special milestone for the Focus at it celebrates its 50th anniversary. Devlin outlines how they plan to mark the occasion.

“We’ll be doing the new Jimmy Murphy play and several other productions,” he says. “We’ll also be publishing a book of essays on Stanislavski featuring contributors from both Ireland and overseas and a volume of plays.”

The Hen Night Epiphany runs at the Town Hall from Tuesday January 31 to Saturday February 4 at 8pm. Tickets are available from the Town Hall on 091 - 569777 and www.tht.ie

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