Guilt trip to Ireland
John Nathan on a moving new play about a family’s attempt to understand their son’s suicide, plus a brace of Shakespeare comedies
There Came A Gypsy Riding Almeida N1
We never see the most i n f l u e n - tial character in Frank McGuiness’s moving new play. His name is Eugene and although he has been dead for two years, his presence, or, from his family’s point of view, his absence, stalks the stage.
To mark what would have been Eugene’s 21st birthday, his parents Margaret and Leo (Imelda Staunton and Ian McElhinney) and older siblings Louise and Simon (Elaine Cassidy and Aidan McArdle) have gathered at the family’s West of Ireland coastal home.
Ahead of them is a long day’s journey into night that, like O’Neill’s play, will force the family to confront the taboo. Aside from grief, they have to grapple with the manner of Eugene’s death — an alcohol-fuelled suicide with no clue left as to what made him do it.
What interests McGuinness is how a family survives death and guilt. But what elevates his play above that of a conventional family drama is the character of Bridget — played by Eileen Atkins — the nosy, elderly eccentric who lives nearby.
Her connection to the family is through her cousin, Leo. But what places her at the heart of the play is that it was she who found Eugene’s body. And in a scene where the stage crackles with tension, it is Bridget who delivers the sealed suicide note that she withheld for two years.
The question therefore around which Michael Attenborough’s wonderful production revolves is not just why Eugene killed himself, but whether the mischievous Bridget i s motivated by cruelty or kindness.
Atkins delivers the answer with what will be one of the performances of the year, brilliantly treading a line between the benign and the malign. Her meddling Bridget is not only the source of the play’s abundant humour, but the embodiment of the Irish folklore and superstition that swirls around McGuinness’s writing. Accused by Simon of being a witch, she retorts, “I’m more of a confused fairy”.
As the grieving mother, an excellent Staunton, comes close to matching Atkins. There are strong performances too f rom McArdle, Cassidy and particularly McElhinney as the down-to-earth father. And as the best new play since last year’s “The Seafarer” by Conor McPherson, Irish writing once again sets the standard for English-language drama. (Tel: 020 7359 4404)
Eileeen Atkins and Imelda Staunton confront tragedy