The Dockers of Strumpet City
Just as James Plunkett did with Strumpet City, and Charles Dickens did with just about everything, Dubliner Lee Coffey has set about writing a socially conscious love poem to the grime and glory that is his native city. Less a tale of two cities, the ambitious "In Our Veins" delivers more a city in two tales spread over a century. The first concerning an unfortunate country girl, Anne Brady, who falls into the horrors that were the tenements of Dublin’s Monto, reputed to be the biggest red light district in Europe at the beginning of the twentieth century. The second following her abandoned son, Patrick, left on the doorstep of a loving couple who raised him to be a Docker, experiencing all the joys and dangers that hard working life entailed. If Coffey’s script is ultimately unbalanced, struggling to reconcile theatricality with the directness of its telling, when it all comes together, and it often comes together, it can be an absolute delight. Due in no small measure to its large heart and one cracking ensemble.
Commissioned by Dublin Port Company, metaphors arrive early in "In Our Veins" as a coffin is waked in coal black darkness. As much a funeral for a time and place as for the late Patrick Doyle. Or Little Paulie as he was nicknamed by the lads on the Docks. His death prompting his wife Ester to recount his life to his grandkids as they say a little prayer, beginning with the story of his mother, Anne. The least successful of the stories, Anne’s tale of brothels, madams and unexpected kindnesses rings hollow at times for feeling like a history report, or a set of tourist guide notes. The effect, due to too much expositional tell and not enough immediate show, begins to undermine “In Our Vein’s” emotional punch. Button bright, like Eliza Dolittle on a day trip to Dublin, the clean skinned Audrey Hepburn kind, Anne might tell you her life is horrible, but you don’t really see it. Partially because too many heart of gold moments can make the Monto seem like a fun place to be. Partially because Anne isn’t too nonplussed by the horror of it all, casually moving on to the next order of business as if the last client, punch or pregnancy was a detail she read rather than lived. It might want to suggest a bland normalisation of the horrors of the time, but doing so comes at too much a cost and delivers too little in return. Something a valiant Amilia Stewart tries hard to enliven, with director Maisie Lee constantly searching for a compensating image but creating only a few.
All of which is quickly rectified with the arrival of Little Paulie, his father, and the docker Bloody. Down by the waterfront Coffey excels as humour, heart, and horror convene superbly, with excessive direct address being minimised and made briefer, and better linked to the telling action onstage. From here on its laughter and tears, heartache and joy as Dockers drink pints, shovel coal, hook timber, or hit the dance floor in a world defined by nicknames, Button Men and who gets the read that day. Yet as Patrick works his way through life, working his way up the Docker ranks, the ghost of a woman he never knew and the shadow a murderer who changed his life will eventually come calling.
Like glancing through someone else’s photograph album while they supply a running commentary, "In Our Veins" delivers a series of often deeply moving snapshots. The best ones being self explanatory, the weakest being when the commentator insists on oversharing too much of the back story. While Coffey is to be admired for the scope and scale of his ambition, the marriage of the Monto and the Docklands feel like two different histories being cobbled together. Which risks derailing the lot for seeming to skirt the depths in order to surf the details. All of which can impose an informative leash over narrative proceedings, making pace, and a number of scenes, feel forced fit and clunky. Not helped by a surprisingly less than stellar soundtrack by Denis Clohessy that feels like it belongs neither here nor there nor then. If Eoin Byrne’s lighting has some fine moments, it’s a design that has to work incredibly hard and trips over itself at times trying to give life to Lisa Krugel’s disappointingly obvious pitch dark and ever changing set, with its clunky arrangements of props and suggestive spaces.
Performances, though, are another matter entirely. Playing a multitude of roles, cast are simply outstanding. Aisling O’Mara as Lily the Lamppost and the young mother Ester is terrific throughout. A solid Amila Stewart as Anne shines as an exuberant bobby socks dancer. Catherine Byrne’s vicious Madam and the older Ester inhabits both ends of the maternal spectrum wonderfully. Jack Mullarkey, Gerard Byrne and Ian Lloyd Anderson prove to be scene stealing superb as Patrick at various stages of his life, along with several other characters. Anderson also shines as Little Paulie’s father, with all three showing Coffey at this brilliant best when father, son and an unholy ghost await their pay in the pub after a day digging coal, marrying character, narrative and history lesson superbly.
Dealing in hard men and whoors with hearts of gold, sentimentality isn’t too far away in "In Our Veins.” Yet that’s perfectly okay. For with "In Our Veins" Coffey hasn’t set out to write an academic history of the Docklands so much as a Dublin street ballad to celebrate a proud way of life, commemorate a dignified people, and honour an era now gone like the rare old times at the end of a working day. Had it focused more on its community of hard men with nicknames for life, and less on the Monto, perhaps giving those women their own tale at another time, "In Our Veins" mightn’t have taken so long to find its feet. Yet once it finds them it stands tall. And proud. And deservedly so.
Coffey is a writer who honed his skills at Theatre Upstairs, the labour of love of Karl Shiels and Laura Honan. A venue who’s contribution to Irish theatre cannot be measured, and whose recent closure was felt as a crushing blow to many. One can only hope that Karl and Laura return at some future date in some capacity or other, for their gain is theatre’s loss. Had Theatre Upstairs not been we might not have had Bitter Like A Lemon or Lee Coffey, or a host of others. And on the evidence of "In Our Veins" that would have been a serious loss. For with "In Our Veins" Coffey shows he has the talent to go places.
"In Our Veins" by Lee Coffey, presented by Bitter Like A Lemon and The Abbey Theatre in association with Dublin Port Company, runs at The Peacock Stage of The Abbey Theatre until April 20.
For more information, visit The Abbey Theatre.