Friday, January 11, 2019

Nothing but a Toerag review: Witty prison comedy earning the trust of a therapy session

In Aisling O'Mara's new comedy a prisoner confides her problems in a cellmate. 

Smock Alley Theatre (Boy's School), Dublin
Jan 8-12

★ ★ ★

Unpacking a crate of her belongings within a stark jail cell and without any sign of horror or alarm, Bianca seems to have accepted her fate. Having perpetrated an unknown crime, the young woman played by Aisling O’Mara in her witty new comedy for Taking the Biscuit is resolute and quiet like someone accustomed to a verdict of guilty. 

That may sound like the set-up of a punishing portrayal of imprisonment. In fact we first see Bianca against the big beat music of Fatboy Slim’s Right Here, Right Now as if this incarceration has somewhere livelier to be. 

Cue the arrival of a demanding and relentless cellmate (played by the terrific Clare Monnelly) determined to learn Bianca’s history. In time their scabrously funny dialogue earns the trust of a patient confiding in their therapist, painting a picture of Bianca’s abandoned family, and a niece without support. That makes an appropriate addition to the mental health festival First Fortnight.

With its contrast between O’Mara’s nicely stoic and irascible Bianca, and Monnelly’s over sharing and eccentric cellmate, this may best be described as a buddy comedy but that doesn’t wholly cover it. Early on Monnelly’s woman interrogates Bianca about her favourite colour, food, song and animal - a list that the play takes as its plot structure, rationing out revelations from aesthetic to bestial. 

O’Mara’s previous play co-written with Robbie O’Connor, the 1916 Rising drama Rebel Rebel, was told in kinetic spins and compelling abstractions. Here Bianca experiences night terrors in nightmarish moments accompanied by ‘90s electronica, as if a psychological drama is lurking beneath the surface. 

Director Amilia Stewart’s sharp production brings the necessary unsettling effects. A major plot point is hidden within John Gunning’s clever lighting, while Ellen Kirk’s crafty cell set is austere to the point of resembling somewhere more sterile. 

The dramatic collapse of Bianca’s reality is made more surprising by the arrival of a doppelg√§nger, the invented “double” that since The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyl and Mr Hyde satisfies a character’s needs. If that discovery seems more convenient than revealing, it’s because the play hasn’t quite worked out how to use it. 

Yet there is something interesting said here about guilt, as if the only thing worse than serving time is an imprisonment of your own sentencing. 

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