Angels With Dirty Faces
Mary Uhura Cleary hates her sworn nemesis, Majella ‘Jelly Tots’ Barnes. The same Majella who looks gorgeous, has lots of friends, and likes to make up hurtful rhymes about Mary in school. Like the one about the holes in Mary’s knickers. Not a nice thing to do when you’re walking to church to make your first confession. Yet perhaps everything is not quite as straightforward as Holey Mary would have us believe. Feeling like Frank O’Connor’s First Confession, Brendan Behan’s The Confirmation Suit, and Give Up Yer Aul Sins all rolled into one, Eoin Colfer’s delightful “Holy Mary”, looks at the trials and tribulations of a pair of angels with dirty faces as they prepare to make their First Holy Communion. If its two deadly sinners are far from angelic, “Holy Mary” often comes close to being divine.
Set in Dublin in 1986, Catholics and culties exert a powerful influence over the minds of two young Dublin girls, Mary and Majella, whose Mums know a man on a secret mission who tentatively links their lives together. Looking to make that first good confession can be hard when their pain and hatred for one another runs so deep. Yet if confession is all about sin and penance, their big, First Holy Communion day is all about the dress. A special dress that’s going to bring everything to a head. Even if every story has two distinct sides when it comes to the same events, in the end this story might have to be resolved with the two girls going head to head. Yet who’ll emerge sinless and victorious?
First produced in 2011, “Holy Mary” crafts a simple narrative around two innocents abroad who are not as different as they would like to believe. If you care to deconstruct it, Colfer’s simple tale contains several depths and themes. Bullying, guilt, sin, innocence, loneliness, family, poverty, the coping mechanisms young children employ when confronted with well intentioned, and not so well intentioned, adults who can barely care for themselves; it’s all there if you care to go looking. But there’s a good chance you probably won’t because you’ll be having too much fun laughing out loud and heartily. If “Holy Mary” heaps on the schmaltz a little too heavily in places, it also shows an abundance of heart. More than enough for it to transcend its historical and cultural specificity and become universally engaging, even for those pagans who’ve never worried about falling through a trap door into the fiery pit of hell.
Yet if “Holy Mary” has many strengths, its production values are far from compelling. Jack Kirwan’s basic set design might convey something of an old classroom, employing a clever use of a blackboard and chalk to shift between scenes and locations, but it does little else, leaving Andy Murray’s lighting design, and Fiona Shiel’s sound design, to pick up a lot of slack. Mary Sheehan’s costume designs, or rather the lack of them, proves far too distracting and makes the whole look cheap. Even if the two costumes on display work well in their given moments, in other scenes they look completely out of place. In a production where the notion of costuming plays such a significant role, its lack is keenly felt and deeply disappointing.
Yet if production values are not all they could have been, performances are simply off the charts. Maeve Fitzgerald as Majella, and Mary Murray as Mary, are simply astounding, with both taking on several additional roles. Throughout, Fitzgerald and Murray’s richness of tone and pitch, their shared articulation of a physical vocabulary comprised of subtle and detailed gestures, are simply mesmerizing. Director Aoife Spillane Hinks does a superb job, taking the challenges the venue poses and turning them into strengths, as well as eliciting two gobsmackingly brilliant performances, and one of the most utterly convincing street fights ever to grace a stage.
Thoughtful, touching, and hilarious, hilarious, hilarious, “Holy Mary’s” tale of two young, Catholic girls will appeal to anyone who’s ever stepped inside a confession box. If you haven’t, don’t worry. Fitzgerald and Murray’s pitch perfect performances will appeal to anyone who was ever seven years of age. For Fitzgerald is fabulous, Murray magnificent. “Amn’t I only gorgeous?” Mary asks. You are indeed, “Holy Mary.” Catch it if you can. If you can’t, then set Google alerts for when it tours so you don’t miss it.
“Holy Mary” by Eoin Colfer, produced by Breda Cashe Productions, runs at The Viking Theatre until March 17th
For more information, visit The Viking Theatre