This Boat Is Sinking
Like Peter Pan, Sean is another little boy who never grew up. But it wasn’t from a lack of trying. For growing up means little boys becoming men, but where do you even start with that in todays impossibly confident, success driven society? You might fake it on the outside, but that doesn’t mean you’re making it on the inside. In Caitríona Daly’s superb “Panned,” one man’s poor mental health and the performance of masculinity prove to be two sides of the same self-destructive delusion as Peter Pan and Tinkerbell head out to a going away party. Like J.M. Barrie’s eternal boy, Sean is precariously trapped somewhere between reality and all we’ve ever dreamed. A nightmare brought vividly to life by a stunning Ste Murray in an invested, endearing, and utterly engaging performance.
Like Peter Pan, Sean was brought up to believe dreams do come true, that if you only wish hard enough you will have everything in life. Yet in Naomi Faughnan’s superbly tatty, third rate Peter Pan costume, looking like it was tossed onto a pantomime rubbish heap, a disgruntled Sean discovers life didn’t get that memo. Even life’s day to day details are trying. For a start, Sean doesn’t want to go to any fancy dress party, especially dressed as Peter Pan. Doesn't want Rachel going there in just her bra and knickers thinking she’s Tinkerbell. Shouldn't she be Wendy anyway if they’re a couple? Doesn’t want the lads to see his green, genital revealing jeggings when they’ll all be wearing blue jeans and cool masks and bragging about their uninteresting lives. Doesn’t want, yet desperately wants, people knowing that his boat is sinking and he’s really in need of help. Sucking it up and internalising his anger, Sean turns his hatred onto himself as they set out. A failed poet in a crap job who can’t even get onto a post grad course, Sean has ample self justification for his self hate. When a Tesco straw finally breaks the camels back, Sean’s inside voice begins to break through to the outside world with startling consequences, leaving him alone seeing only two choices: go backwards into hell or somewhere darker. For if wanting to die and wanting to kill yourself are not the same thing, they may prove to be closer than you might comfortably like.
Wherever Sean is, it certainly isn’t Neverland. Nor is it a place of this world. Lost in a dark liminal space, beautiful evoked by Laura Honan’s marvellously simply, yet supremely evocative set, Sean is isolated somewhere he doesn’t want to be yet doesn’t want to leave. Honan’s raft, adrift in canal dark waters, functions on many levels, referencing J.M. Barrie’s classic novel while evoking the confining space inside Sean’s head where his inner accusatory monologues rage relentlessly, where one false step might see him topple into oblivion. Echoing Honan’s less-is-more aesthetic, director Eoghan Carrick’s lighting design does little, but does it to explosive effect. Similarly Dylan Jones’s understated sound design, whose fading in and out of fog horn and phone at the crucial moment shows a flash of genius.
Throughout, Ste Murray delivers an exemplary performance, making some solid choices. If, at times, it feels like it's all being pitched at the same level, this serves to highlight Sean’s struggle to maintain unwavering control. With Sean unravelling, Murray cleverly avoids the road of easy histrionics, keeping it reined in as Sean endeavours to restrain his inner voice. Instead, he allows the cracks to appear gradually in Sean’s emotional dam, letting the emotional tidal waves consume him over time, leaving him drained and exhausted. In negotiating “Panned’s” multitude of voices Murray also makes a brave choice in allowing additional characters seem to manifest as part of Sean’s pained psyche. The stage may get crowded, but it’s only ever Sean we truly see. Eoghan Carrick directs this mini rollercoaster with ease and assurance, establishing a solid and steady pace, yet a little more disruption to the rhythm might have made the multitude of conflicting voices easier to tune in and out of.
In her writer’s notes, Daly talks about her surprise that so many people believed she was writing about men when “Panned” was first produced in 2014 at Theatre Upstairs, failing to recognise it was about her and her own mental health struggles. Whatever Daly's authorial intent, standing back a little it’s easy to understand the response. If Daly’s dichotomy between life as lived and life as imagined, its pains, frustrations, and depressions resonating universally, in “Panned” they are heavily steeped in masculine overtones. As well as being built around a metaphor of a boy who wouldn’t grow up. Sean’s suppression of emotion, his inability to talk or ask for help, and an internalised rage that tears his self worth to shreds by utilising every perceived failure are all male tendencies. More tellingly, the performance of masculinity is a performance for other males to validate. Male approval, or disapproval, claims a lot of Sean’s focus in “Panned” as he spars and parries with the lads for oneupmanship, each inflating, or hiding, who they are and what they really feel beneath humour. “Panned,” it would seem, might well be a case of what T.S. Eliot called there being more in the poem than the poet knows themselves. For while “Panned's” concerns are not exclusively male, it is impossible to separate Sean’s mental health from his maleness. And impossible not to be impressed by Daly's smart, funny, and insightful script, and a stupendously impressive performance from Murray.
“Panned” by Caitríona Daly, presented by Hooked in association with We Get High Collective and Theatre Upstairs, runs at The Project Arts Centre until November 17
For more information, visit Project Arts Centre.