tue 23/07/2024

Living Quarters, Tobacco Factory Theatres, Bristol | reviews, news & interviews

Living Quarters, Tobacco Factory Theatres, Bristol

Living Quarters, Tobacco Factory Theatres, Bristol

A Brian Friel theatrical treasure revealed in this devastating tale of a family tragedy

The fun before the storm: Commander Butler (Simon Armstrong) returns from warCamilla Adams

Brian Friel’s Living Quarters ranks with his best plays but isn’t well known. This powerful story of family dysfunction was first performed in the UK in 1991, directed by Andrew Hilton for Bristol’s legendary pub theatre company Show of Strength and was then not seen on the English stage until now – once again with the Bristol director at the helm.

Hilton’s conviction in the text’s undoubted quality has paid off: this is theatre in which Ireland’s greatest living playwright brilliantly plays with narrative form in a way that blends the experimentation of Pirandello and the hot-house family dynamics of Chekhov, all in a style of his own, that surprises at every turn of a many-layered plot.

Commander Frank Butler returns a hero, from a UN mission in the Middle East. His family is brought together to celebrate. Over a progressively more drunken afternoon and night, fates are twisted into a tragic knot and slowly but surely unravel. Friel’s debt to the story of Theseus and Hyppolytus, the stuff of Racine’s greatest work Phèdre, isn’t just a plot reference: from the start, on a sunny May afternoon, we sense the tragic destiny of a family group basking in the sunshine and pretending that everything is alright.

The unfolding of fate and reflections on its necessity – the stuff of ancient Greek theatre – are held together by a dark-suited character called “Sir”, who holds a bound text referred to as “the ledger” and both directs and comments on the actions of the characters on stage. He is at once all-seeing deus ex machina, witness and author. He has none of the regimental priest, Father Tom’s vacillating belief in God’s grace. “Sir” is a cynic, whose cold eye highlights the terrible vulnerabilities of every single character in the play. Often in dialogue with the cast – as subject to ineluctable destiny as they are hopelessly grasping for choice – “Sir” leads the dance, taking the story forward at times, holding back in the wings at others, and sometimes intervening at the play’s most dramatic moments.

The return of the hero – the stuff of myth, as everyone on stage clearly knows, and in which archetypal roles are naturally assigned – unpacks a cellar-full of family secrets and betrayal. Simon Armstrong, as the returning soldier, evokes with emotional subtlety the rift between his military bearing and the burning pain inside. Craig Fuller (pictured above), as his wayward son Ben, gives a remarkably touching performance as the male offspring tainted by his father’s shadow, who struggles with the necessity of being an anti-hero, the only means of finding distinction from the blustering bravado of “Commander” Butler. These and the three daughters are finely drawn characters, and the actors make the most of the text’s psychological finesse. The varying emotional tones of daughters Helen (Nina Logue), Miriam (Hayley Doherty) and Tina (Martha Seignor) are a delight to watch, as each responds in her own way to the unfolding drama of the night. Rose O’Loughlin as the Phaedra of the piece, the young stepmother, has just the right touch of immature sexuality, not knowing what to do with it: she is a prey to the ultimately destructive forces within her.

Chris Bianchi brings almost sinister detachment to the central role of “Sir” – devoid of sentiment and yet faithful to the story in his ledger. His god-like role is contrasted with Joe Hall’s portrayal of Father Tom with his padre’s blundering faith and scatter-shot goodness. This is cardboard cut-out religion, which collapses in the face of hard-edged tragic destiny.

Director Andrew Hilton displays his usual mastery of ensemble playing: the pleasure expressed in the interaction between members of the cast is contagious and the Tobacco Factory’s in-the-round seating provides just the right sense of over-heated intimacy that the play demands. A classic proscenium set-up wouldn't provide the same almost uncomfortable closeness, and an uneasy proximity to the tragic events unfolding before us, with a tangible sense of the suffering that is inevitably involved.

We sense the tragic destiny of a family group basking in the sunshine and pretending that everything is alright


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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