The Wexford Trilogy

Billy Roche

Tricycle, Kilburn

(2000)

Review by Philip Fisher

Billy Roche’s late 1980’s portraits of small town Ireland are currently enjoying a great revival at the Tricycle Theatre in Kilburn. It is possible to watch them all in a day. This is the equivalent to emigrating to Ireland for six months and proves richly rewarding, if somewhat exhausting. It is also possible to see the plays individually as they each work independently.

Ireland is currently awash with excellent playwrights. One immediately thinks of Sebastian Barry, Tom Murphy, John B. Keane, Frank McGuinness, Marina Carr, Conor McPherson and Martin McDonagh. Billy Roche is fit to compare with any and all of these. His plays are set on a very small canvas as is currently popular with Irish playwrights. He portrays life in a country town in Wexford from three different perspectives in this very funny but ultimately touching trilogy of plays. While they are set in the same town with the same cast and odd cross references, the characters portrayed and the nature of the plays differ greatly.

The main themes are of the inability of one generation to escape the heritage of its predecessor so that mistakes are always repeated; the claustrophobia of small town life where everyone knows everyone else’s business; and the choice of stay behind or take your chances in dead end jobs in England.

The cast that director Wilson Milam has pulled together is universally excellent with each member given at least one major part in which to shine. It seems unfair to select individuals from such a great ensemble but Peter McDonald, Rebecca Egan and Michael O’Hagan were perhaps the pick in their very different ways.

A Handful of Stars

The first play is set in a bar run by the curmudgeonly Paddy (Michael O’Hagan). The nature of the play is set when the grunge music of Nirvana identifies the oncoming desperation and hopelessness. Paddy is a great comic character whose main identifying characteristics are a sneer and a habit of constantly scratching his bottom. It is the haunt of two different generations: the young chancers, Jimmy and Tony, who play pool in the public bar and the older, possibly wiser pair of Stapler and Conway, who drift from the members-only area to join their younger proteges.

It soon becomes apparent that this is the tale of Jimmy. He is the child of a father who is now living in the 20th Century equivalent of the poor house and this is likely to be his destiny too. There is a good parallel drawn between the fighters, the younger Jimmy and older Stapler and the talkers, Tony and Conway.

Jimmy is a lively bright lad played unbelievably well by Peter McDonald. He is banned from everywhere in town for causing relatively minor trouble. He then falls for Linda who works in the office at the town’s factory. We begin to understand Jimmy’s view of life when he explains to Linda that he will rob anyone if he needs something. This is clearly not the morality of the pre-war years when the Christian work ethic was all. While this relationship calms him down for a while, his tragedy eventually takes on almost mythic proportions when the incredibly patient Linda decides to jilt him on the night before Tony’s wedding. This leads to a completely convincing argument between the two youngsters. The measure of the quality of the acting by McDonald and Elaine Symons is the embarrassment that the audience feels in witnessing such a personal confrontation.

The final scene of this play is very moving as we see what can so easily happen for a young lad from a deprived background with no prospects. The ending itself is perfect and Roche is to be congratulated for avoiding the chance to go for overkill by preaching or moralising.

This play consists of lots of short scenes and is action packed. It is a very sparely written, tight play with hardly a redundant thought or word, as are its successors. This is a strong trait of Roche’s and adds greatly to the impact of his writing.

Poor Beast in the Rain

The second play is about the stark choice that faces all residents of the deprived parts of Ireland, whether to stay or leave for England. It is the tale of young Eileen, the daughter of Bookie Steven who has never been known to crack a smile, and a long lost wife. The wife had run off with the aptly named Danger Doyle about fifteen years before.

The play is set in the bookie’s shop. It is the time of the All Ireland hurling final and Wexford, led by the heroic Red O’Neill, has made it to Croke Park. Once again, this is a play that contrasts generations and that shows how children are destined to follow in their parents’ footsteps. We start with some high comedy as the patrons discuss the final and their coach trip. This gives Roche the chance to provide some high comedy, particularly for Eamon Maguire’s Joe, the kind of man who would want to arrive early for his own funeral.

In this play, Eileen looks after her father and the shop and is excessively dutiful. She is quietly pursued by the ardent Georgie whom she regards affectionately but doesn’t love. The word suddenly arrives that Danger Doyle has been seen in town. This is almost reminiscent of a Hollywood Western.

His arrival turned the whole town upside down. His actions have already had a profound effect on Joe who worshipped but betrayed him, Steven whose wife he stole, and Molly, the cleaner, who has been in love with him for all of the years of his absence. His return now forces Eileen to choose between her father, the dead end town and seemingly Georgie on the one hand, and Danger, her mother and England. The interplay between Michael McElhatton and Elaine Symons as Danger tries to persuade Elaine to join her mother shows both of them, at their best.

As Molly so wisely says, “Some people are born to be hurt and some to do the hurting”.

All of this is played out against the antics of the sports supporters who clearly use their sporting passions as a surrogate for the other kind. The climax of this play is once again spot on and very moving as Eileen has to make her choice.

Belfry

Roche experiments far more with style in the final play. He uses the device of a narrator chatting with the audience. This is the sacristan, Artie, played by Gary Lydon, who relates the tale of his discovery of love. This is done in a series of flashbacks but these are not in strict chronologically order. Rather than confusing, this adds to an understanding of the story and allows mystery to creep in.

Artie is about 40 and lives with his bedridden mother. He is the sacristan at the church and basically runs the shop for the (whisky) priest father Pat. This latter character is himself complex, suffering crises of faith, not to mention his weakness for a tipple. He is not helped by a community that largely consists of the dead and the dying.

They have almost adopted their altar boy, the rather simple but very endearing Dominic, a part that gives Hugh O’Connor his chance of glory. He gets in the way and causes all kinds of trouble, culminating with his use of the church bells to play The Rolling Stones’ Satisfaction.

He is also unwittingly the cause of the drama in this play, as it is at his birthday party that Artie falls for (is seduced by) the married Angela, very well played by Rebecca Egan. What may have started as an innocent friendship between the innocent Artie and the seductive church volunteer Angela, soon ups a gear or two. She seduces him in the Belfry and he is bowled over by her. She however seems to regard this as an interlude from her marriage to the former handball champion, Donal.

While the affair runs smoothly for a little while, Angela is happy to end it - much to Artie’s distress. To make matters worse, a poison pen letter informs Donal of the affair. He confronts Artie in a scene of embarrassing discomfort for the audience, let alone the characters. These scenes of disharmony are a real Roche speciality.

Once again Roche brings us to an appropriate ending with Angela’s two victims, Artie and Donal stronger and wiser for their interaction with her.