At almost seven years old, Lily Featherstone is a little girl in no great hurry to be a big girl just yet. Yet Lily has some big girl things she has to deal with. Just like her grandmother, Verity Jane, Lily has to go to a special house. In her case a Wendy House, one that’s being made especially for her. But that’s okay for, like Verity, Lily will be taking all her precious belongings with her, packed neatly into her pink plastic, see through, back pack. In Claudia Kinahan’s impressive debut, “The Wendy House,” life, family, and her rural community are processed through the eyes of a precocious little girl who must travel to Dublin regularly because she’s not very well. Touching and heartfelt, “The Wendy House’s” tale of an astutely self aware little girl, unaware of the truth that surrounds her, bravely tackles a difficult subject and handles it with great sensitivity, beautifully told by way of a heart-winning, one woman performance.
Colouring happily in her colouring book, dressed in her pink pyjamas with the white stars, Lily addresses the audience before politely coming forward and shaking hands. Lily is getting ready to go to her Wendy House, and Lily has an awful lot to say on everything. From her love of Frozen to Mam and Dad selling the old car, from her sister Clare and her boyfriend to parties she’s not being invited to, from tubes going into her tummy to making rockets with her best friend Sam when they both visit the doctor, Lily could go on and on, and very often does. Lily loves telling stories. Loves hearing them and making them up. Especially the one about Rocket-man and Star Lady fighting the aliens, which is really about her and Sam. She probably loves Sam. The glossy magazine says she does. But kissing means you become an adult and she doesn’t want that. She wants to be Star Lady, and with her special cape she just might be able to save everybody.
As is often the case with one person performances, what’s offered is sometimes more of an encounter than a journey, and in Kinahan’s clever and sensitive script, this certainly holds true. In “The Wendy House” it becomes clear very early on that, dramatically, there’s no real journey taking place, even if Lily herself is preparing for one. This runs the risk of the ensuing sixty-five minutes feeling like being trapped in a room with a stranger’s talkative child who won’t shut up, wants you to listen to all their stories, and to see all their toys. Something which, occassionally, just a hint of passes through “The Wendy House.” Thankfully Kinahan’s writing is far more engaging for the most part, making the irrepressible Lily deeply endearing. If a degree of cuteness and sentimentality is unavoidable, Kinahan keeps it to a minimum, even if the pain free, never complaining Lily can feel a little too good to be true at times, like one of the romanticised, un-suffering characters in her own stories. Yet if “The Wendy House” deals less in grit, with Kinahan minimising narrative and dramatic possibilities in the process, it excels at heart. If, at times, the writer elbows her way into the dialogue, making her presence felt in shaping the descriptions or the narrative, these serve more as signs of an intelligent learning curve in a young writer finding her feet, who stands upright for most of the time in the mind of the remarkable Lily. Indeed, Kinahan shows great instincts in wisely trusting her audience to infer the true meanings behind Lily’s words, never spoon feeding them easy explanations, making the experience far more poignant and richer as a result.
Whatever growing pains Kinahan’s script might exhibit, her performance shows no such drawbacks, being nothing less than exceptional. Never an easy thing an adult playing a young child, but if Kinahan the writer slips in occasionally in the writing, Kinahan the performer never misses a beat as the lovable Lily and the entire cast of characters that populate her life. Squirming as she colours, her feet never touching the floor as she sits, Kinahan is so good she’s almost seven. Under the astute direction of director Rachel Bergin, who subverts the fourth wall beautifully, Kinahan crafts a multi-layered, perfectly paced performance. One built on a delightfully delicate, physical vocabulary that’s never wavered from, richly informed by Kinahan’s impressive vocal talents.
Playing with scale, Ellen Kirk’s excellent set is as brilliant as it is simple, with its oversized, pastel coloured, lego squares and step-ladder reminiscent of a children’s TV programme. Along with Annachiara Vispi’s delightful costume, it physically reinforces Lily’s childlike stature. The only ingredient to go awry in this wonderful childlike cocktail is Richard Durning’s sound design. It might vaguely suggest a doctor's waiting room for about ten-seconds, but it does little else and quickly becomes troublesome by relentlessly asserting itself. During the penultimate scene where a weakened Lily speaks low, wonderfully conveyed by Kinahan through soft, subtle shifts in expression, an insipid and innocuous, ambient soundtrack that would better serve as background during a spa treatment, competes against her. Dara Hoban’s light design, particularly during the aforementioned, penultimate scene, cleverly adds depth and texture throughout.
If “The Wendy House,” is narratively weak in places, and can spend a little too long on needless, and sometimes repetitive details, it does more than enough to reveal Kinahan as a promising young writer with tremendous talent. And a first class performer whose compelling performance is just a staggering joy to watch. With “The Wendy House” you’ll never again feel half as much joy falling in love with a character and getting your heart broken. For in the loveable Lily Featherstone, Claudia Kinahan has created the perfect little lady. And this little lady is a star. Who knows, Kinahan might well be one too.
“The Wendy House” written and performed by Claudia Kinahan, directed by Rachel Bergin, produced by Dreamback, runs at Smock Alley Theatre until May 12
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