Terry O'Neill in Grace. Image uncredited.
There are some who view negative criticism of honest, hard working theatre makers as unkind and vindictive. Especially those without funding trying to make a living in a highly competitive market. As if critics enjoy nothing better than writing damning reviews from their ivory towers. When, in truth, critics, like most people, are always hoping for a five star experience. Still, even though a critic knows no company puts on a production to fail, some fall short of their stated intentions. Which would be fine were it solely about the artist’s process. But once you ask an audience to give up their time and money, and possibly other shows they could have gone to, you’re saying your production is of sufficient quality to warrant their investment. When it falls short the critic is obliged to descend from their ivory tower and say so while trying to explain why, much and all as they wish it were otherwise. Or the people involved would rather they didn’t. Even if the critic admires the people involved. Who might be experienced hands with more than a few successes under their belt. As is the case with Terry O’Neill’s one man performance, Grace.
Essentially a recital of James Joyce's same named, short story from Dubliners, Grace falls flat for sticking slavishly to its prose text. Its plodding pace with no stakes and little action serving up a lacklustre piece of Catholic apologia on behalf of the Temperance Society. Following a low point in a pub one night, Mister Kernan is persuaded to go on a religious retreat by his friends whilst recovering in bed, concluding with a sermon in Gardiner Street church on squaring your accounts with God. In between dull and dated Catholic trivia likely to challenge even the most theologically inclined abounds. What’s amusing in Joyce’s comic tale slipping through the cracks as O’Neill, in period costume, flexes some impressive character muscles, articulating snapshots that fly past like scrolling through selfies in a hurry. Yet the core of Joyce’s tale, the narrator, fails to deliver. The irony, the conspiratorial intimacy, the confidential superiority underplayed as O’Neill’s narrator speaks at the audience rather than to them. The audience never confidants but rather strangers to whom information is being reported rather than friends with whom a story or private joke is being shared. Compounded by expositional prose often sounding like stage directions peppered with “he said.” Grace needing to be properly adapted for the modern stage to distill its potential. Much of its essence lost despite an energised recital by a committed O’Neill.
If Colm Maher’s lights are a orchestra of mood, Sandra Butler’s set invokes a minimalism that misses its mark. A selection of chairs suggestive of a funeral parlour and three stained glass windows evocative of a pub and, at a generous stretch, a church. Functioning more as symbols than props given that most of the action takes place in a dishevelled bedroom. Michael James Ford’s direction missing the wood for focusing on the trees. If effective with the micro details of the different characters that flash past, Grace’s macro concerns never cohere into a cohesive whole for suffering an excess of lulls. Whilst there’s charm, ambition, and a desire to remain faithful to Joyce's original text, there’s not enough to elevate Grace above a stylised reading. Faithful to the text, it’s not quite faithful to the spirit of the story. O’Neill showing range, doesn’t get to show his depth. It’s there. Like Ford's. It’s just not here. Grace a labour of love with some tidy flourishes, but a labour whose love is often blind.
Grace, by James Joyce, runs at Bewley’s Cafe Theatre until December 23rd.
For more information visit Bewley’s Cafe Theatre