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  • Chris O'Rourke

Dublin Theatre Festival 2022: Heaven

Andrew Bennett and Janet Moran in Heaven by Eugene O'Brien. Image Set Murray


From a distance, Eugene O'Brien's bittersweet Heaven looks a lot like a sequel to his 2001 classic Eden. Again with the small town couple whose marriage is struggling. Again with alternating monologues. Again with a wild night of adulterous sex that brings things to a head. Again an ironic, one word title suggesting some distant, Christian utopia. Given Mal and Mairead are a couple in their fifties, it's doubly tempting to see Heaven as a direct follow through. And, in a way, it is. But Heaven is best defined by its differences rather than similarities. It might construct from similar materials, but the framing and lens have tilted.

To begin with Mal and Mairead's marriage is nothing like the searing heartache that is Breda and Billy's in Eden. Here it's a marriage in name only, a safe space for two damaged souls. A marriage having a profound, mid-life crisis. At Mairead's sister's wedding old flames and forget-me-nots stir wild feelings. For sex, drugs, release from intolerable emptiness and parental responsibility, for a freedom to express what's really going on inside. A desire for everything and anything, except each other. Even so, there's no rancour. No pained apologies or long, lingering goodbyes. Just two best friends keeping the secret they're unable to share with their best friend.

Andrew Bennett and Janet Moran in Heaven by Eugene O'Brien. Image Set Murray

If Mal and Mairead revisit Eden's old thematic ground, Heaven also revisits small town Ireland twenty-one years later. It hasn't changed much. It's still a place of big dreams and false promises. Built now on faded hopes, endless parties, a Tesco, an Aldi, and a Lidl. The details of small town life marvellously rendered by O'Brien, as are the games that people play. The chat-ups, the hook-ups, the bravado, the beer. The awkward, all elbows no room claustrophobia reflected in Zia Bergin-Holly's chunky set, like toy blocks scattered across the floor. Some, like the bar and outside wall, working superbly. Others, like the armchair under a streetlight, grating for looking unimaginative.

Under Jim Culleton's direction the heart of Heaven finds its release. For when it comes down to it, Heaven is two performers speaking lots without interacting. Andrew Bennett and Janet Moran being utterly superb, their chemistry palpable. Moran as the wild for life Mairead, and Bennett as the soft spoken, Jesus-loving Mal turning in two crowning performances. Culleton giving shape to the gaps and depths in their relationship. Utilising tone, pace, gesture to convey what breathes between the lines. Mairead's hunger being for more than just sex. Mal's complex relationship with Jesus a brave and powerful meditation giving voice to something many have wanted to hear. Though just as many will not want to hear it.

Janet Moran and Andrew Bennett in Heaven by Eugene O'Brien. Image Set Murray

Perhaps that's why O'Brien invests Heaven with so much hilarity; to temper things a little. Or perhaps he's just mellowing as the years go by. For Heaven's pains are heavily laced with laughter, adding to their immediacy and poignancy. Joy always there, just a little out of reach. Like dancing with a stanger to Dancing Queen. A couple of last minute reversals might strive to deliver a strong dramatic climax, but it's not one you entirely buy into. Signing off with a sense of issues still left unresolved. Who knows, Eden:The Trilogy perhaps? With a final instalment entitled Paradise? If so, I'll be looking for royalties. For now, O'Brien's Heaven is a place on earth, and it's playing at a theatre near you. Go see it. A smart, touching and moving piece of theatre, exquisitely performed and superbly directed.

Heaven, by Eugene O'Brien, presented by Fishamble: The New Play Company, runs as part of Dublin Theatre Festival 2022 at The Pavilion until October 16 before continuing its national tour then heading to New York.


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