Karen McCartney and Nellí Conroy in Philo by Peter Sheridan. Image by Patrick Joseph.
Opposites attract in Peter Sheridan's Philo as two women bond over secrets shared. Sheridan's foulmouthed, Jackeen Philo, and soft spoken, Cultie nun, Sister Rosaleen, become the yin to the others yang as they unburden their past. One a woman who hid herself in a convent, the other a women who hid herself in chocolate. Serving up a life affirming tale that's a structural mess. True to life because of its glaring gaps, convenient insertions, things left unresolved, and raising as many questions as it answers, Philo is untrue to its drama for the very same reasons. But if it's a mess, it's an Eton Mess, so scrumptiously enjoyable it's practically a sin.
In her early thirties, Philo may be innocent in some ways, but she's no longer as naive as she once was. Worn out, she is never world weary. She suspects life is joy and is determined to find it despite the odds being against her. Side by side with Sister Rosaleen in The Good Shepherd Day Care Centre, Sheriff Street, Philo juggles the practicalities of making meals along with the demands of bingo calling. A trial not for the faint of heart. Yet Philo is all heart, even if she's at the end of her tether. An alcoholic husband and a joyriding son sends her seeking the boy's real father to put manners on him. A bouncer in Liverpool he's never met, and who Philo knew for only one night of passionless passion. But things don't go to plan, leading her to confide in Sister Rosaleen. A road that leads to painful revelations for both, but may offer a way into healing.
Nellí Conroy and Karen McCartney in Philo by Peter Sheridan. Image by Patrick Joseph.
Adapted from his 2003 novel Big Fat Love, if Sheridan's structure leaves something to be desired, with its ending sidestepping too many questions raised, it succeeds as an intimate character study. For it's not the stories in Philo that matter, it's the women. Their growing friendship as warm and natural as a hug. Sheridan's earthy, economical language belying hidden shades and depths. Brought vividly to life by two immaculate performances by Nellí Conroy and Karen McCartney, beautifully directed by Sheridan. Conroy crafts Philo with such natural ease it's tempting to think she's not acting. Yet if Conroy understands the rhythms of inner city Dublin, manifesting them is never easy, the temptation to caricature all too real. But Conroy's voice and physicality suggest a women whose seen it all, lived it all, and will never be beaten by it all. A perfect foil to a stunning Karen McCartney, phenomenal as the saintly Sister Rosaleen, who has also seen her share of life. McCartney so present and embodied you'll want to bless yourself every time she takes to the stage, being possessed by a sudden urge to go to confession.
Less a set so much as a series of visual prompts, if Florentina Burcea's design does what it needs to with unfussy practicalness, her subtle costumes are much more successful. But, honestly, you don't notice too much, mesmerised as you are by Conroy and McCartney, their chemistry a thing of beauty. Funny and heartfelt, Philo is a love song to the strength, laughter and resilience of the women of the inner city. If you have to forgo your lunch to catch Philo, do so. It's far tastier and far more satisfying.
Philo, written and directed by Peter Sheridan, presented as part of The Five Lamps Arts Festival, runs at Bewleys Café Theatre until April 23. It plays at The Viking Theatre from May 16.