In the far corner, weighing in at ‘it’s inappropriate to ask,’ please welcome the indefatigable Liz, the long suffering, lesbian wife whose team are fighting for the title. Meanwhile, over in the dark corner, weighing in at several bottles of craft beer, with light fingers when it comes to other people’s money, please boo and hiss loudly for the misogynist Paul. In Lisa Tierney-Keogh’s "This Beautiful Village" an unscheduled residents committee meeting serves as a pretext for a battle of the sexes. If this is a tag team event, you can rest assured that if it’s not always clear where loyalties lie, positions will soon become plain. Indeed, should you have cause to leave half way through, fear not. Like any wrestling match, the ending is already fixed and you already know who the winners will be. Right down to who’ll deliver that last minute knockout blow, and what moves they’ll employ in order to see the heroes triumph over the villains. Delivering cliched, politicised wrangling with predictably weak obviousness, "This Beautiful Village” trades its heart for its message, becoming so tiresomely sincere in dropping its truths, it soon drops the theatrical ball.
Initial hopes "This Beautiful Village" might yield some scathing insights into middle class suburbia, a la Abigail’s Party, are very soon dashed. As a bothersome fly refuses to die (read into it what you will) a distraught Liz prepares her modestly decorated home for an impromptu residents committee meeting with the wine swilling Maggie, the clumsy Philip, the tired doctor Grace, the lasagne loving Dara, and the misogynistic Paul. What should be a neighbourly get together, to address the graffiti plastered near Liz’s home, soon descends into death by a thousand cuts as privilege and prejudice, foibles and failings are lacerated with gusto. Yet if there’s talk about compromise and resolution, it’s all only talk. For power may shift, but it’ll never be shared, as there can only ever be one outright winner who holds the title.
If Ciaran Bagnall’s set, and Sarah Jane Shiels’ lighting, beautifully evoke a retro looking, yet utterly contemporary middle class suburbia, suggestive of a 70s American sitcom, the suburbia interrogations really don't get much deeper. Instead, "This Beautiful Village" descends into a lively Oireachtas session, albeit one of the wittier ones, wherein politicised views are battered about with dull regularity. One punctured by some fine moments of humanity and humour, but one ultimately designed to guarantee party members are on their feet applauding. Yet the politics of the good don’t always make for good theatre. If Tierney-Keogh finds some delightful stereotypes to play with, and can create some genuinely funny moments, her broken vagina being a case in point, these only serve to reinforce what might have been as argument follows argument follows argument, round after predictable round. All serving to wrest power from the patriarchy’s cold, dead hands. So sit down, shut up, and do as you're told. Sound familiar at all?
Director David Horan, eliciting top class performances, manages to squeeze "This Beautiful Village" for every ounce of pleasure it can yield, despite its limitations. Looking more like devices or mouthpieces, characters might have their personal concerns, but it’s their politics, and not their lasagnes, that come to define them. Liz, a woman who doesn’t make arguments so much as embody an argument, is played with verve by Ruth Bradley. Pom Boyd’s scene stealing Maggie, is a joy as a world weary woman who's seen it all and learnt very little. Michael Ford-Fitzgerald’s Dara, the kind of male feminist feminists love to hate, is absolutely terrific. As is the awkward, out of touch Philip, rendered superbly by Damian Kearney. If Bethan Mary-James’ Grace does little till the end, she’s someone Mary-James imbues with life and energy. Aidan McArdle’s demonised and demonising Paul, a litany of ignorance with no redeeming features, manages to turn this sows ear into a performative silk purse, even if it's an ugly one, working with asinine arguments so obviously redundant they make for no argument at all.
It’s arguably becoming a mantra: with so many productions addressing gender and misogyny, race and consent, a production really must stand out to stand its ground in so crowded and impressive a field. A feel good polemic for the politically woke masses, "This Beautiful Village" relies on its predictably politicised debates for substance, having little in terms of character, and less in terms of story on offer. Indeed, if theatre should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable, "This Beautiful Village" serves to comfort a comfortable middle class while also trying to contribute something. And it does. Yet being neither as smart, funny, nor as theatrically engaging as it had the potential to be, "This Beautiful Village" makes you laugh, think, and question on occasion, but far less often than it might have done.
"This Beautiful Village” by Lisa Tierney-Keogh, runs at The Abbey Theatre until September 14.
For more information, visit The Abbey Theatre.