Forget the patriarchy, it's the matriarchy women need to worry about in Ciara Elizabeth Smyth’s dark new comedy “We Can’t Have Monkeys In The House.” Or one particular matriarch, the bane of her three daughters existence, as well as a fourth daughter she never speaks of, the one that got away. An Absurdist, for the most part, and searingly honest exploration of the uneasy dynamics between four sisters their mother wished were misters, “We Can’t Have Monkeys In The House” explores sibling rivalry and mother-daughter dynamics in all their dysfunctional messiness. It might echo Cinderella, with its warring women comically eviscerating one another, but Smyth cranks up the spite in this hilarious, and often heartfelt tale of four suffering sisters
Narratively “We Can’t Have Monkeys In The House” doesn’t have a whole lot going on, doing just enough to bring its four characters together and establish some sisterly tension. Indeed, in true Absurdist tradition, it often feels delightfully incomprehensible. A dying, unnamed and unseen matriarch lying comatose in hospital following a heart attack, finds her three, self martyring daughters she conditioned to care for her for the past fifteen years wanting to pull the plug. The unexpected protests of her fourth daughter Jo, originally christened John and recently returned from Belfast, momentarily scuppers the sister’s plans. Leslie, the sister chief overflowing with deep seated resentments, thinks Jo should mind her own business having walked out on the family all those years ago. Cinnamon, a beautiful and brilliant internet influencer, in her own mind at least, with a penchant for over the top funeral make-up, agrees wholeheartedly with Leslie. Neil, a cereal comfort eater and dancer of dubious talent, who calls herself Nell now mother’s not around, just wants everyone to get along as she has no idea what they all should do. A Do Not Resuscitate order written by their dying mother could sort it all out if only it could be found, if it even exists. Something Jo sets about trying to discover, using an oversized puppet which prompts a lot more than the recollection they bargained for. As fantasies, fears, and forgotten memories come pouring through, the hatred of sisters who supposedly love, and the love of the daughter who supposedly hates come rising to the surface. Truths which they’ve always distracted themselves from soon come home to roost. Truths which may well decide their fate, along with the fate of Mommie Dearest.
“We Can’t Have Monkeys In The House” marks something of a transition for Smyth, being more cohesive than some of Smyth's previous, sketch-heavy offerings such as the delightful Triangles and the award winning All Honey. A cohesion due, for the most part, to the pained sibling rivalry which holds it all together, lending a palpable strength to Smyth’s impressive comic stylings. In many respects Absurdist conventions serve Smyth well, allowing her to achieve cohesion through some strong overriding themes and characters without her having to completely sacrifice her love for the sketch, hilariously evident during a clever murder investigation and a visit to the inside of Cinnamon’s head. Smyth’s fractured, almost Cubist approach, allowing her to slip the reins of a too restrictive naturalism, successfully offers a multitude of disordered perspectives shifting through time. Yet some hurried transitions between a number of scenes create some unnecessarily hard edges.
Ultimately though, Smyth comes to betray her new Absurdist and Cubist leanings, which were working so well for her, causing structural damage in the process. Not least of which is an effort to tidily wrap it all up with some easy explanations late in the day. An ending it doesn’t really sell for feeling lazily contrived with its convenient and problematic reveals. Like trying to tag an explanation onto the end of Waiting For Godot, it causes far more problems and forces far more questions than it answers. Even if the ending shows heart, it should have been constructed in a manner more in keeping with the play’s Absurdist and Cubist proclivities. Proclivities in which the juxtaposition of the contemporary with the repressive religious beliefs of Holy Catholic Ireland don’t look at all out of place, yet look distinctly uneasy as soon as it tries make a rational sense of its irrational self.
A strong visual arts sensibility impressively informs production values throughout. With Naomi Faughnan’s demented set and costumes delivering a design tour-de-force, Faughnan cements her reputation as one of the most exciting designers around, all ably supported by John Gunning's lighting. Often looking like they belong to some over the top extras from The League of Gentlemen, Faughnan’s costumes convincingly convey Smyth’s crazy universe with its dark humour and underlying heartache. Faughnan’s swelling set, resembling roots, mushrooms, body parts, monkeys, or all of the above and more, does what Smyth’s script ultimately fails to by trusting itself enough not to want to explain itself, and being all the more potent for doing so.
With the casts surnames being emblazoned across the centre of flyers, posters, and programmes, like recognised superstars in some Hollywood blockbuster, it might seem like their taking the tongue-in-cheek joke a bit too far. But well they deserve to be there for Galligan, Healy, O’Mara, and Ross, are wildly marvellous. A splendid Danielle Galligan as the insecurely vain Cinnamon, Camille Lucy Ross’ superb upper crust Leslie, and a standout performance by a brilliant Meg Healy as the childlike, scatterbrained Neil, hit the right balance perfectly throughout. An impressive Aisling O’Mara, in the thankless role of straight woman Jo to her larger-than-life comedic sisters, provides the grounding fulcrum around which all else rotates. Director Olivia Songer keeps things moving along nicely, for the most part, yet a failure to iron out some performative stutters in pacing, separate from Smyth’s Cubist hard edges, particularly at the beginning, has rhythm looking a little stunted and shaky in places. Yet if Songer doesn’t always come to grips with establishing the play’s rhythms, she certainly comes to grips with her first class cast who each turn in memorable performances.
There’s a dark heartbreak at the centre of “We Can’t Have Monkeys In The House” which its wild, delicious humour wonderfully underscores. Something its four strong cast dazzlingly convey, as well as delivering some laugh out loud moments. Its bittersweet ending might arrive unconvincingly, and it may slip in places for being unsure of itself, but there’s a quiet power working at the centre of “We Can’t Have Monkeys In The House” that draws you irresistibly in. “We Can’t Have Monkeys In The House” may be Smyth’s darkest work to date, but it strongly suggests her future might well be blindingly bright.
“We Can’t Have Monkeys In The House” by Ciara Elizabeth Smyth, runs at The New Theatre until November 24.
For more information, visit The New Theatre.