sun 25/02/2024

The Dry House, Marylebone Theatre review - fine performances in Irish three-hander | reviews, news & interviews

The Dry House, Marylebone Theatre review - fine performances in Irish three-hander

The Dry House, Marylebone Theatre review - fine performances in Irish three-hander

Eugene O'Hare treads familiar ground with his confessional about alcoholism

Sister act Kathy Kiera Clarke and Mairead McKinley Images - Manuel Harlan

Eugene O’Hare’s The Dry House is the kind of spare but oddly lyrical three-hander that would have made a good Wednesday Play back in the day. For Conor McPherson fans, it will seem like familiar terrain, with all the ingredients for an unusual domestic drama. Think, one interior, probably a humble home or a pub, where a small cast sit and drink, talk, confess, drink some more. Some of them are dead. 

Here there are two earthbound characters, Chrissy (Mairead McKinley) and her sister Claire (Kathy Kiera Clarke of Derry Girls fame). Also popping in regularly is Chrissy’s late daughter Heather (Carla Langley, pictured below), with whom she has tête-à-têtes in her mind, replaying the conversation they had the day Heather passed her driving test. Heather leaves for her first outing in a friend’s borrowed car with Chrissy exhorting her to come back in one piece. We assume she didn’t, but little here is what it seems. 

Claire arrives at her sister’s to find her shaking for lack of alcohol. Chrissy has promised to enter a detox clinic, the "dry house” of the title, after one last four-pack of beer (it’s about 9.30am). Claire has agreed to deliver the booze if Chrissy then goes straight to rehab for eight weeks, though she is sure Chrissy is going to back out of the deal as usual once the cans are consumed. Two thirds of the play is spent watching Chrissy down her beer, her decision still in the balance.  

Meanwhile, O’Hare (who has a separate career as an actor) builds the central antagonism between the sisters: Chrissy, hair dishevelled, unsteady on her feet, versus Claire the neatly turned-out woman who keeps her house spotless and her trainers box-fresh (the inside of her oven, too), who believes in “dignity” and only drinks nice wine with her husband over dinner.

Why would Chrissy be willing to destroy herself with drink? A couple of scenarios are suggested: the grief at losing her daughter has sent her into a downward spiral. And of course she has their Da’s “drinking gene”. She was once a funny woman who enjoyed working in a shoe shop. Did quitting after being accused of stealing from the charity box change the whole course of her life? She says she sees her drinking as a way to get where she wants to go. But where is that? Wallowing in grief in her messy house, with the curtains permanently drawn? Its only clean room is Heather’s, left untouched, her crisp Tesco uniform still hanging on the back of the door.

Carla Langley in The Dry HouseA lot clearly is riding on this stint at the clinic. Claire sees it, predictably, as Chrissy’s chance for turning her life around and saving her house (whose mortgage Claire and her husband pay: an inherent threat is there, but it's not clear whether this is said purely to frighten Chrissy into rehab). But Claire has her own dog in this game too, as becomes clear as the confessions flow. One stated reason she wants Chrissy to succeed at rehab is so she won’t feel guilty about her any more. In a moment of some bathos, she reveals that this will cement her own life plan to go to the Open University. Our sympathy for Chrissy grows as we see she may be wheedling and manipulative, but she's no hypocrite. Her final confession is truly poignant.

O'Hare also directs and has drawn fine performances from his cast, McKinley in particular, who seems to be cornering the market in unhappy middle-aged mothers after her recent role in Akedah at the Hampstead. She gives Chrissy a spark, and a welcome line in dry humour, that seemingly contented Claire cannot muster. 

In the final stretch, the play blooms and grows in stature, but that only makes you wish there had been more ballast in its middle section, where it sags slightly. There, Chrissy continues ploughing through her beer, her fate still in the balance, and the novelty of Heather’s regular appearances has worn off. You might start wanting Chrissy to drink up and be done with it.

But Heather too gets to make a confession, which she moves to the space between stage and seating to deliver. Again, this is in the last third of the piece. She also has to sing, at her mother’s urging, a song she once performed in a pub. Heather describes Chrissy’s request as “cringey”. The song is Coldplay’s "Fix You”, so you may agree. The lyrics are tailor-made for the play’s thematics, almost too neat a fit perhaps, and as a finale for Heather it’s a bit, well, cringey. Chrissy, though, gets to exit in fine style. 

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