Dublin Fringe Festival 2023: Girl in a Cell
Niamh Ryan in Girl in a Cell. Image byDara O'Donnell
Another Fringe show, another one person performance. Once again quirky meets funny on a journey towards self awareness, all wrapped up in a touching, happy ever after. Niamh Ryan’s bubblegum offering, Girl in a Cell, covering familiar ground. Thankfully in a fresh and ironic way. In which seventeen year old dancer Jenna, suffering from a crippling psychosomatic illness, sets about seeking a cure before the regional dance finals. If that sounds heavy, it is. Not in a Hallmark Channel kind of way, but in a Clueless meets Heathers meets Mean Girls kind of way, had all of them been set in Dublin. Adding just a pinch of Sex Education to sweeten what is a delicious candy floss cocktail. Whose chief ingredient is the irresistible paragon of style and beauty; the gloriously vainglorious and irrepressibly amazing Jenna. Just ask her, she’ll tell you.
Taking a while to get going, Jenna’s backstory overstays its welcome as we get to meet the people in Jenna’s life. The wallet that is Dad, the dance partner that’s a boyfriend, the hot nurse who’s off with the hot patient. All milling around after Jenna’s disastrous attempt at the splits during a dance competition which sees her hospitalised. Seeking a cure from consultants, nurses, and even God, Jenna resolves to partake in a residential programme in Camp Cure so she can be ready for the regional finals. Narratively, things become interesting with stakes rising as Jenna undertakes therapy, in which secrets are revealed, including the secret hidden in plain sight which Ryan handles marvellously. Ryan’s screenplay structured script, with its close-ups, wide shots and panning, handling its reveals incredibly well, even if you don’t always buy them (forgiveness, in therapeutic situations, includes offering forgiveness as well as asking for it). Girl in a Cell showing less the cohesion of a well structured story so much as a selection of diary entries crafted into a collection of interconnected scenes. Scenes which are often smartly funny, with Jenna never less than adorably self-centred. Dara O’Donnell’s set capturing the mess Jenna hides inside. Cloud shaped walls evocative of the walls of CBGB’s, had they been painted pink and the scribbled graffiti gentrified and sanitised. The writing spilling from the walls of her mind onto Jenna’s body, making for a subtly brilliant metaphor, all the more powerful for being understated.
If serving up an enjoyable bowl of ice cream, Girl in a Cell relies on too few varieties of scoops and way too many sprinkles. Not that it’s all vanilla, but it could’ve done with mixing some pistachio, salted caramel, and maybe some of whatever you like yourself to enrich its contrasts of flavour. Along with a director that would have challenged and supported Ryan as both writer and performer, ensuring better balance in terms of pace and structure. Throughout, Ryan excellently shifts between her myriad of characters, crafting a lexicon of richly detailed expressions ensuring characters are much more than caricatures. Ryan showcasing her work, and talent, having taken both as far as she could. Testing them in the Fringe, which is part of what the Fringe is there for. Ryan’s transformation a genuine pleasure to behold. Her initial pensive, nervousness giving way to growing confidence and self-assurance as performance deepens with each scene.
A feat made all the more impressive by virtue of two idiots in the front row. One incessantly removing items from his haversack, or impatiently shaking his outstretched foot inches from the performer. The other, his phone face-up on the chair between them, twice checking it when it brightly chimed with an incoming message. I said something then, and I’m saying something now. If you lack the courtesy to respect the performer onstage, or your fellow audience members, then with the greatest of respect, please fuck off. Ryan deserves better than your self gratifying ignorance. But Ryan’s sure to have the last laugh. True, Girl in a Cell is no way near as perfect as the inimitable Jenna. But it’s a perfectly solid and promising start, suggesting we watch this space. Who knows. Maybe, one day, Ryan will outshine even the divine Jenna.
Girl in a Cell, written and performed by Niamh Ryan, runs at Smock Alley Theatre until Sept 13 as part of Dublin Fringe Festival 2023.