It's Not The End
Four bodies, two male, two female, grope their way through spewing smoke, staggering as they descend balcony after interminable balcony after interminable balcony. The dodgy voice-over track doesn’t help matters, the voices of survivors of the Stardust Nightclub fire on the night of February 13 and the morning of February 14, 1981, often barely audible. As openings go, "48" is pretty unimpressive. Until the cast begin to breath, delivering a hand slapping a capella rendition of Blondie's Call Me that stirs the hair on the back of your neck. In “48," writer and performer Gemma Kane sets out to craft a loving tribute to the 48 victims who died in the Stardust, the worse fire disaster in the State’s history. Delivering a joyous production that will steal your heart, even if, ultimately, it lacks the intensity to break it.
In "48" Gemma Kane wears her heart on her sleeve as Sarah ‘Stubby Fingers’ Kane, girlfriend of several years to Tom. Things recently have been a bit bumpy between the childhood sweethearts, courtesy of Jackie Quinn during that little break up Sarah and Tom had. But Tom loves Sarah and is all ready to meet her family. Why it took this long to meet them is one of the many questions Kane’s script fails to address. Including all those outstanding questions about chained doors and barred windows in the dance hall that night, which Kane alludes to briefly. Questions relatives of the Stardust victims are still trying to find answers to thirty-eight years later. Indeed, it soon becomes apparent that Kane’s script is less about the Stardust and more about the days and weeks leading up to it. And the people who perished or were impacted by the fire. Such as Maggie and James, sidekicks to Sarah and Tom, rounding out the quartet of childhood friends whose collective teenage anguishes about jobs with bad vibes, pervy fitness coaches, and wanting to get back together can feel like matters of life and death.
As debut scripts go, Kane’s "48" overflows with promise for being sharp, wonderfully paced, smartly observational and deliciously funny, even allowing for the occasional clunky piece of exposition. Throughout "48" the Stardust is ever present as a backdrop, with “48” radically underplaying direct reference to the tragedy. Instead, Kane focuses on the joys and sorrows of her teenage quartet who were there that night as they ponder love, jobs, marriage, betrayal, and testing the lids on jars. Even so, Kane cleverly avoids too much twee sentimentality, with just a smidgen here and there, as she sets about realising four young people on the cusp of life before tragedy struck.
Director Clare Maguire makes some brave if curious choices, incorporating some lacklustre physical sequences. And songs that never manage to repeat the success of the opener. With cast frequently doubling up to play larger than life caricatures of parents and friends, comedy comes hard and fast, making "48" feel like a 70’s light entertainment show. Not a complaint per se, with an hilarious Laurence Falconer producing some comedy gold. But the over the top performances soon risk the cast resembling pantomime dames. If Falconer stands out brilliantly in this regard, bringing the house down with laughter every time, the effect is to risk undermining secondary characters as real people, diminishing the impact of the tragedy for seeming to deal in cartoons. Indeed, balance between the comic and tragic is askew throughout in favour of the former, something Maguire never really resolves. Even if, compositionally, she creates some beautiful moments and elicits some terrific performances from her impressive young ensemble. Gemma Kane proves to be an absolute revelation, enjoying some tour de force level chemistry with Niall O’Brien’s impressively played Tom, both irresistible and painfully recognisable as teenage lovers. Emily Fox as the grounded one of the quartet, less prone to overt outbursts of love, is also a delight, as is the scene stealing Falconer. Sinead Purcell’s set design might be a masterclass in minimalism, but her beer mat floor is a stroke of genius, with Shane Gill’s lighting providing some wonderful texture and commentary throughout.
For some, "48" might seem to swim a little too close to becoming Stardust: The Comedy. Told as a John Hughes, 80s styled, teenage rom com with some rare references to the Stardust adding a sting in the tail. Such an assessment, however, misses the point. If Kane doesn't overly dwell on the tragic event, she most certainly doesn't dishonour it or the people involved. Indeed, there is a palpable sense that what Kane is striving for is to reclaim those people who died that night, with their joys, pains, heartaches, friendships and laughter, from being lost in statistics, such as the plays ominous title. "48" might strike an uneasy balance, seeming to take a light entertainment approach to a seriously dark subject, and you may not learn all that much about the events of that night, but Kane’s focus is forever on people, which is where “48’s” true potency lies. Honouring the families, victims and survivors, "48" is a brave, riotous and winning production. “It’ll be all right in the end, and until it’s right its not the end.” For the Stardust families the end is not yet in sight as their quest for accountability goes on. For Gemma Kane, "48" is a beginning, one that confirms Kane as an exciting talent for the future.
“48” by Gemma Kane, produced by No Desserts, ruins at Smock Alley Theatre until April 13.
For more information, visit Smock Alley Theatre