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  • Chris O'Rourke

Three Monologues by Jennifer Johnston

Aoibhéann McCann in Jennifer Johnston’s Twinkletoes as part of Three Monologues. Image: Ros Kavanagh


In Jennifer Johnston‘s Three Monologues (Mustn't Forget High Noon, Christine, Twinkletoes) we find ourselves very much in Belfast territory. Kenneth Branagh's Belfast that is. Johnston's troubled tales about The Troubles being similarly dipped in sentimentality, nostalgia, and golden oldie references. Hard realities looming offstage like a refurbished backdrop. Featuring three first-class actors, working with three of The Abbey's resident directors under the guidance of lead artist and designer Maree Kearns, the result often makes for heavy going. Due primarily to the pace of Johnston's novelistic style, which never quite finds its snap. And to a subject matter not having aged quite as well as Johnston's prose.

Charlie Bonner in Jennifer Johnston’s Mustn’t Forget High Noon as part of Three Monologues.Image: Ros Kavanagh

Serving up a complimentary diptych, and an unrelated monologue looking like a well considered afterthought, Johnston's Three Monologues from 1995 place demands on staging which designer Kearns cleverly negotiates, for the most part. Though Charlie Bonner clearly drew the theatrical short straw with the opening monologue, Mustn't Forget High Noon, standing front and centre like a stand up comedian with little room to move. Even as Kearns’s corrugated wall serves the script well. Like in Branagh's Belfast, the classic 1952 Western featuring Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly serves here as metaphor. This time for the delusions of masculinity for Orangeman Billy. A tale of fathers and sons, of male traditions and friendships, Bonner, under director Gea Gojak, turns in an outstanding performance full of subtlety and nuance. Made all the more demanding, and impressive, by the stage's physical limitations. And by Bonner not so much assisted by, as battling against Carl Kennedy's sound and Eamon Fox's lighting, with both proving unnecessarily intrusive. Bonner and Gojak having everything well covered already.

Ali White in Jennifer Johnston’s Christine as part of Three Monologues. Image: Ros Kavanagh

A clever segue into Christine offers insight and continuance as Billy's wife prepares to leave the family home. Kearns’s set cleverly deepening into a stark room, even if it does suggest a cabin on Little House on the Prairie. If director Claire O’Reilly ensures Ali White turns in a compelling performance, White also finds herself battling uphill for different reasons. Spending a considerable amount of time pressed into a corner upstage, White stops looking frail and becomes diminutive, while appearing at a loss for something physical to do. O'Reilly's strong choices backfiring a little as scarves are put on, removed, then put on again. A packed suitcase half heartedly unpacked only to be packed again. Yet O'Reilly proves a deft hand at handling emotional subtlety, which sees White sounding depths and finding the hidden strength that underscore her character.

Aoibhéann McCann in Jennifer Johnston’s Twinkletoes as part of Three Monologues. Image: Ros Kavanagh

Undergoing its final transformation, the stage deepens yet again and comes impressively to life. A wise move as Twinkletoes makes her entrance. Aoibhéann McCann, under the impressive direction of Laura Sheeran, using every inch of stage she can play with. And McCann certainly likes to play. Ensuring that if Johnston's earlier diptych owed more to Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads, often looking old and old fashioned, Twinkletoes delivers storytelling theatre with a bang. McCann being simply glorious as a dancer who has lost her dancing shoes. Along with her husband to prison, her daughter to a shotgun wedding, and her youth to the martyrdom of being a hero’s wife. Under Sheeran's compositionally gorgeous direction everything onstage is made to matter; tissues, tea bags, a naggin of vodka. And a dazzling McCann, who struts, stalks, sits, dances and prowls with natural ease. Activating the energy in both the space and text. With Kennedy's sound and Fox's lights redeeming themselves, making strong, punchy statements. Like Sheeran's direction.

Ali White, Charlie Bonner and Aoibhéann McCann in Jennifer Johnston’s Three Monologues. Image: Ros Kavanagh

At an estimated two hours and twenty minutes (keep estimating) Johnston's Three Monologues makes for an uneven, and somewhat long night. Yet there is much to admire in the understated manner in which the lives of women, and men, are shown to be shaped by the Troubles. If the production doesn't always find its target, The Abbey's Resident Director Program proves to be a screaming success. Offering hands on experience and mentoring and not just mere tokenism. Yet it needs to be remembered the program is not a competition. Rather it's an opportunity for directors to practice their skills, work with serious talent, explore their ideas, hone their craft, and learn from the strengths and mistakes of themselves and others. Under Kearns's impressive mentorship, Gojak, O’Reilly and Sheeran show they're ones to watch for the future.

Aoibhéann McCann in Jennifer Johnston’s Twinkletoes as part of Three Monologues. Image: Ros Kavanagh

A final word on McCann. An artist whose graciousness sees her compelled to be modest, or one who simply has no idea how brilliant she is. Her contemporaries rightfully considering her one of the most likeable, gifted and versatile performers of her generation. An Irish Meryl Streep with Bette Davis eyes, with a talent comparable to both. Like Streep, it’s virtually impossible to find someone to say a bad word against McCann. But we’ll give it a try. McCann is infuriating, setting standards so impeccably high others can be left whimpering with envy. Well, we gave it a try. But the reality is McCann is electrifying onstage, and is, indeed, one of the most gifted and versatile performers of her generation. The world is hers for the taking. Go see for yourself. You can thank me later.

Three Monologues: Mustn't Forget High Noon/Christine/Twinkletoes by Jennifer Johnston runs at The Peacock Stage of The Abbey Theatre until March 12.

For more information visit The Abbey Theatre


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