- Chris O'Rourke
The Twenty Club
Lesley Conroy, Evanne Kilgallon and Eva Jane Gaffney in Stewart Roche's The Twenty Club. Image Sthiti Padhy.
Dublin. 1942. World War II rages across Europe. In a cramped room three women secretly listen in on communications between suspected agents and Nazi Germany. Spies for the Irish government, Norah, Ellen and Joan also enjoy having a good time. For Norah likes the boys, and the boys clearly like Norah. Especially German officers staying at The Gresham Hotel. Ellen, exhibiting a motherly concern, worries Norah might get into trouble. Joan, ever the diplomat, runs interference between the two. As their first field operation looms, using their natural talents as women raises questions about loyalty, betrayal, friendship and a certain death. In Stewart Roches lovingly conceived The Twenty Club, neutral Ireland's uncomfortable relationship with Fascism during World War II serves as context for a story of three remarkable women. Brought vividly to life by three remarkable performances.
Eva Jane Gaffney in Stewart Roche's The Twenty Club. Image Sthiti Padhy
Despite its three act structure, The Twenty Club leans heavily into novel territory in its use of exposition and description. Discussing the war, their boss Captain Farrell, and details about Dublin and the period, the real action takes place off-stage and is then relayed back. If it risks characters seeming to eavesdrop in on a world elsewhere, you forgive them because they're three beautifully articulated characters. Who, when drinking, dancing, or practicing self-defence, seduce you completely. Indeed, Roche's script succeeds best when viewed as a character study. It might be the high stakes world of international espionage, but being told with such low intensity it's less Ian Fleming and more Maeve Binchy. It's three independent women wanting more from life being a familiar Binchy trope, and also the best thing about The Twenty Club. For as story and history, The Twenty Club is a thriller that never quite thrills. Being in need of some pruning.
Lesley Conroy in Stewart Roche's The Twenty Club. Image Sthiti Padhy.
Under Rex Ryan's superb direction, Lesley Conroy (Ellen), Evanne Kilgallon (Norah) and Eva Jane Gaffney (Joan) turn in tour-de-force performances, their chemistry practically a character in itself. The detail in Kilgallon's face, married to Gaffney's expressive physicality, is enthralling. The casting of Lesley Conroy a masterstroke. Conroy being simply astonishing: love seeping from her maternal sternness; breaking your heart with an awkward reach while being unconsciously excluded in a moment of shared joy; eyes tearing at the critical juncture adding just the right degree of emphasis. Alas, Ryan undermines his, and their success by staging in the round, serving up too many compositionally poor and compromised sight lines. Picture Rita Hayworth, Ava Gardener and Ingrid Bergman right before your eyes. Their resemblance to the cast frighteningly uncanny at times. Helped, in no small measure, by Kathy Ann Murphy's glorious period costumes and detailing of the set. Now imagine you spend most of that time looking at one or the other's back. Kilgallon, Gaffney and Conroy are masters of physical expression, using it to play on, or against, language to say deeper things or say things deeper. It's unforgivably frustrating when you can't actually see them doing it.
Evanne Kilgallon in Stewart Roche's The Twenty Club. Image Sthiti Padhy.
The Twenty Club might claim to be fast paced, but it rambles more than runs, occassionally lulling and subduing for liking the sound of its own voice a little too much. But with Kilgallon, Gaffney and Conroy exhibiting the star quality of Hollywood icons, they could talk about the weather and you wouldn't really care. But they don't, because Roche knows how to keep things moving. He definitely knows how to create wonderfully fleshed characters. For The Twenty Club, he couldn't have wished for a better cast. Loose lips might sink ships, but you can shout it from the rooftops; the dream team of Kilgallon, Gaffney and Conroy are simply phenomenal.
The Twenty Club, by Stewart Roche, runs at Glass Mask Theatre until October 8.
For more information, visit Glass Mask Theatre