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  • Chris O'Rourke

The New Electric Ballroom

Jane Brennan and Barbara Brennan in The New Electric Ballroom. Image Ros Kavanagh


It’s as simple as ABC. Ada, Breda Clara. Two full fledged Miss Havishams, one serving her apprenticeship. Together they keep the world at bay behind their closed door. Opened only for fishmonger Patsy’s regular deliveries. The long-winded Patsy longing to escape from the world into their safe isolation. The romantic Clara longing for the promise of multi-coloured skies, like those seen in travel magazines. Trapped in her humdrum town and the stories Breda and Clara tell about that fatal night at The Electric Ballroom forty years ago. A story told and retold till it defines their reality. In Enda Walsh’s critically acclaimed The New Electric Ballroom (first produced 2004), misery doesn’t love company so much as need it to remind itself to stay miserable. A revival in which the visual proves vital. Director Emma Jordan exceptional at realising Walsh’s script. A script rich and resonant, if a little too in love with the sound of its own voice at times. Brought vividly to life in a powerfully moving production marking Jordan and Walsh’s debut at The Gate.

Barbara Brennan, Jane Brennan and Orla Fitzgerald in The New Electric Ballroom. Image Ros Kavanagh

While Walsh’s words prove potent, they occasionally smother each other, with monologues coming in intermittent waves. Visual imagery often much more effective at making a point: Kat Heath’s meticulous costumes, the cake waiting to be eaten, the lipstick applied vigorously, the fishing paraphernalia. Heath’s stunning set, evoking the ghost of a kitchen sink drama, or a rusted chamber of the heart, masterful in its suggestiveness. Indeed, theatricality looms large as the distinction between stage and page gets blurred. Characters intentionally using lights for mood or effect, costumes that transport them to another time, obeying instruction from another character who’s behaving like a demented director. The whole becoming theatrically sublime on occasions when text and image fit hand in glove, such as Marty Rea’s heartbreaking monologue following some heart-throb singing. Walsh, again, loving a good, old, golden oldie. Rea proving more than capable of carrying a tune.

Barbara Brennan and Jane Brennan in The New Electric Ballroom. Image Ros Kavanagh

Meanwhile, pains of the past collide with promises of the present, embodied in the dynamics of old versus young as history risks repeating itself. If the Irish ballroom scene with its showband superstars was once a meeting point for a new, young Ireland looking to America, it soon became identified with a traditional Ireland the next generation wanted to escape from. The ballroom of romance swiftly becoming the ballroom of broken dreams. Ciarán Bagnall’s hanging lights and Katie Richardson’s sound design evocative in that regard, whilst also conveying the grim ghost of Ireland past. Whose dark impact is made wonderfully evident in three sterling performances by Barbara Brennan (Breda), Jane Brennan (Clara) and Orla Fitzgerald (Ada). But Marty Rea supplies the lightning. Detailed in both expression and gesture, paced to utter perfection, with not a word, syllable, or movement wasted, Rea turns in a masterclass performance as the gormless Patsy.

Marty Rea in The New Electric Ballroom. Image Ros Kavanagh

It might be tempting to view The New Electric Ballroom as something akin to an Irish No Exit. Yet where No Exit is an absurdist drama asking existential questions, The New Electric Ballroom seems more psychological than philosophical. With problems resulting from choices made rather than the way things essentially are. The result of telling stories till they become self-fulfilling prophecies that feel like acts of fate. Even as the door, as is often the case with doors, offers a way out of, or into a world of love, passion, and possibility. Including the possibility of getting hurt, of being betrayed. Yet if you can’t, or won’t, escape, there’s always escapism. Even if it is into misery. Yet there are moments in The New Electric Ballroom of such heartbreaking beauty, you know that’s not the full story. There’s more to life to be had, if only you have the courage.

The New Electric Ballroom by Enda Walsh, directed by Emma Jordan, runs at The Gate Theatre until April 1st, transferring to the Everyman, Cork from April 4th to April 7th.

For more information visit The Gate Theatre


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