There are aspects to rural life urban dwellers don’t always appreciate. No, not the anger some feel at restrictive drink driving limits, though there is that. But the fascination, particularly among young men, with owning, maintaining, and driving their own car. In a world were public transport is non existent, the car is seen as a necessity, a status symbol, a babe magnet. A way of moving through the world and of getting out of it. In the American Midwest, it’s the pick-up truck driving the ghosts of Main Street to a Springsteen soundtrack. In the Irish Midlands of Alison Spittles' “Starlet," it’s the back roads of Westmeath with a soundtrack from Road Safety commercials driving a Toyota Starlet. Yet if Spittles’ road is comedically dark, you’ll find few more enjoyable journeys to take you through the night.
If references to 2008 and the kids forgotten by the boom are seriously underplayed, you don’t really miss them. Instead, “Starlet's” insightfully smart and beautifully crafted tale of two lost souls in the Midlands transcends the restrictions of its context. In a world of dogging and rat piss, cancelled weddings and hand jobs, romance can be hard to find and first dates come with all manner of expectations. Take Michael, a big man in a little car returned from a failure to relocate to Australia. With his Toyota Starlet he’s one gear shift away from being a man about the town; a man-boy racer who loves his car almost as much as his Mammy. His date for the night, Shannon, likes his car too. Might even like Michael. Wonders if he likes her. Over shandy and West Coast Coolers the two discover they might be more alike and have less in common than they first hoped. But where does that leave you when your options are so slim?
Full of Tarantinoesque immediacy, Spittle favours the now over backstory, and makes the audience present to events right from the get go. A little exposition about Australia and the poor unfortunate Shamey, doesn’t add much substance aside from a running joke and a few more laughs. But “Starlet” doesn’t need backstory, even if it could have done with a more substantial ending. For Spittles’ decision to leave the audience begging for more feels like a cop out, with “Starlet” abruptly stopping and backing away just at the point where it all gets really interesting.
Even so, “Starlet” is often a breath of fresh air, due in no small measure to two astonishing performances by a superb Peter McGann, and a breathtakingly brilliant Roxanna Nic Liam. McGann's Micheal, resembling a permanently tensed muscle, like the one a few inches below his navel, takes a broad stereotype and invests him with such detail he becomes frighteningly mesmerising. Nic Liam as Shannon delivers a heaven sent beauty of a performance, with every breath, blink, gesture or expression looking perfectly balanced and enlivening. Simon Mulholland’s meticulously detailed direction proves painstakingly precise, and given the sparseness of Spittles’ script, Mulholland does a sterling job in making everything cohere so powerfully, humorously and beautifully. Sparseness also defines some excellent tech work, with Fenna Hirschheydt’s wonderfully purposed set, Fionn Foley’s rich and evocative sound design, Mollie Molumby’s spot on costumes, and Matt McGowan’s superb lighting capturing the sounds, sights and textures of a late night out in the Midlands.
Not one for the kids, or your sainted Catholic grandmother, “Starlet” is a stunningly good, darkly funny, and richly observed production. So much so “Starlet” risks being a victim of its own success. For if you’re not careful “Starlet’s” comedy might well distract you from its meticulously observed details of rural life, and of the souls hampered and hurt who live there. Meticulously crafted into two impeccable performances, and superbly directed to near perfection, “Starlet” is not to be missed.
“Starlet” by Alison Spittle runs as part of Dublin Fringe Festival 2019 at Smock Alley Theatre until Sept 22.
For more information, visit Dublin Fringe Festival 2019 or Smock Alley Theatre