Our New Girl
In a darkened kitchen eight year old Daniel stands alone in pyjamas. He pulls on a medical glove before picking up a knife. Around him, Philip Stewart’s exceptional score haunts the shadows like a brooding threat while Aedín Cosgrove’s excellent lights suggest darker psychological depths. Tension builds, culminating in a sudden pulse of blood red light flooding Alyson Cummins’ superbly angled set wherein opposite walls repel. In The Gate’s production of Nancy Harris’ powerful and uncompromising 2012 play "Our New Girl,” suspense and tension loom and nothing is ever quite what it seems. Least of all Nancy Harris’ "Our New Girl.” For if Stewart and Cosgrove’s horror intimations are impeccable, it turns out they were scoring for the wrong genre.
If you argue "Our New Girl” is a psychological thriller with horror overtones, you might as well argue it's a western. With pregnant mother Hazel, High Noon style, defending family and homestead from danger. Except the homestead is under attack from Hazel, and she's under attack from it. A battle in which psychological scars are constantly being inflicted. It’s been wisely said that when a parent sends a child for therapy very often it’s the parent who needs it, Catherine Walker’s superbly realised Hazel very much a case in point. Stressed to the point of breaking, pregnant Hazel is the kind of person blood pressure tablets were invented for, groping towards an awareness that she's not in a good place. High strung, high stressed, fussing about on an industrial strength adrenalin rush, Hazel is a London based mother with no maternal instinct, a wife whose husband is never home to help her, and a former lawyer starting a new business she knows nothing about. When not stocktaking her endless supply of olive oil she listens to haunting echoes of a responsibility free life coming from next door. Or deals with whatever next her Omen staring, Daniel child, lurking under the table, deigns to inflict upon his long suffering mother.
Trying to juggle being Mom to a kid she can’t tolerate, along with a job she’s no aptitude for, Hazel’s stress factor goes stratospheric with the unexpected arrival of Sligo born Annie. A plain Jane nanny sent by her husband, Richard, to help Hazel manage. Would have been nice had Richard told her Annie was coming, but secrets have become par for the course in the tattered remnants of their relationship. An über cool, volunteer plastic surgeon always travelling to war zones, Richard has nothing to juggle as a drop-in husband and parent, aside from looking photogenic when saving everybody else. Traits Hazel can no longer tolerate. But Annie might be different. She gets him. Gets Daniel. And she’s younger, more naive, and more in need of saving than his heavily pregnant wife. All the ingredients necessary for twelve rounds of full contact, no holds barred, emotional martial arts. Where the victim receiving the most traumatic blows is usually the child caught in the middle.
Under Annabelle Comyn’s direction, Harris’ tale of a family being torn apart doesn’t rely on the occasional red herring so much as frame the whole in a red herring. Leaving a bad taste for feeling you might have bought a ticket to the wrong play. Delivering a family drama dressed up as a melodramatic horror thriller, characters undergo intense emotional pummelling, creating an unbearable build up of pressure ready to go nuclear. Only for it to whisper away like a punctured dream. Impassioned and fraught, as if her blood vessels are about to burst, Walker’s pressure cooker, Hazel, is utterly mesmerising, courtesy of a tenaciously ferocious performance by Walker. Like an emotional soprano, Callas level good, Walker hits an emotional high note and sustains it. And sustains it. And sustains it. Till you want it to stop. It’s a testament to Walker she can inhabit such a highly charged emotional state with little modulation for such a long time, yet never make it feel fake or forced. Or give herself a heart attack. Even when it feels like it’s about to become unbearable.
A striking contrast with her polar opposite; a restrained and underplayed Bláithín Mac Gabhann as the dull as a door nail Annie. Emotionally unflappable, Annie has the personality of a notice board. A guilty bystander landing the occasional dig, Annie has her own agenda lurking under her blouse. Meanwhile Richard, a superbly convincing Aidan McArdle, goes head to head with his unloved wife on his latest visit home. Allowing Harris’s verbal swords to flash as Hazel and Richard cut, thrust and parry with swashbuckling speed, forever drawing blood, with both combatants deaf beyond the range of their own, often dubious arguments. By the time intermission arrives it comes as a relief. Never mind young Daniel being traumatised, a brave and brilliant James Lonergan rotating with Conor Ó Hanlon, the audience are close to being traumatised too; Daniel looking like the only sane person onstage. Who you wouldn’t blame if he shouted at them all to shut up and stop. At moments you’d gladly pay him to. Till it’s round two, which delivers more of the same. Including a revealing flourish by Mac Gabhann suggesting there was a lot more there to be played with, before the fight is finally stopped by a weak judges decision.
Powerful and provocative, even if not all its arguments convince, "Our New Girl" is at its best when Comyn explores its themes honestly: mothers abandoned and mothers abandoning their children, women juggling home and work and the demands of looking beautiful, and the traumas suffered by children at the hands of selfish parents. Yet it comes up short for failing to honour its own contract, Comyn setting up thriller style expectations Harris' family drama doesn’t deliver on. Building beautifully towards a blistering bang, and showing some impressive work by Comyn in getting there, "Our New Girl" ends with a less than believable whimper. The thriller tropes colouring over some real hurt and rage with an excess of emotional Crayola. Which Harris’ script didn’t need for already packing enough powerful punches.
"Our New Girl" by Nancy Harris, runs at The Gate Theatre until March 21.
For more information, visit The Gate Theatre.