Family Ties

Tom Kelly
Customs House, South Shields
(2003)

Sandwiched as it is between revivals of two popular comedies at the Customs House (Dirty Dusting and Good to Firm), this new play by Tom Kelly could not be more different. Based firmly in the North East, the play explores the meaning of identity. A DNA test (the reason for which is unexplained) reveals that Tommy Melia (Gordon Mounsey) is not his father's son and this throws him into complete confusion, for he no longer knows who he is, having defined himself by his family history. Indeed, he is quite obsessed with his family tree and has great pride in his Irish immigrant ancestry.

A cast of four play, between them, ten family members from different generations, from James Melia (Tommy's grandfather) to John (Dale Meeks) and Alison (Michelle Lindsay), Tommy's children. Tommy's wife, Annie, is played by Hazel Temperley. The play switches continually between the four generations, the changes being signalled by minor alterations to scenery and costume and by well-chosen music.

It is essentially a lyrical piece, with much of the story being carried forward by soliloquy or even direct addressing of the audience. This works well, but the downside is that there is little space for the characters to develop and they remain comparatively superficial. At times the lyricism, an element always present in Kelly's plays, overshadows the dramatic and we have characters telling each other (and us) how they feel rather than showing it. Very occasionally we even have characters telling each other things they already know - such as the year Tommy's mother died - in order to pass the information on to the audience, information which we don't really need, except in so far as it helps fix the chronology in the our minds.

If there are reservations about the play - and it is an experiment in structure, so some difficulties are inevitable - there are few about the direction and performances. Director Chris Elphinstone has gathered together a strong cast and gets the best out of them. The only niggle is perhaps a lack of sufficient differentiation between the generations: because of the style of writing and the consequent lack of depth of the characters, it is up to the director and actors to create individuals and this did not always succeed.

Where the younger members of the cast did succeed superbly was in the flashbacks to their childhood, which provided a great deal of amusement.

Having said all of this, both I and the audience thoroughly enjoyed the production and all credit must go, yet again, to the Customs House for providing a further opportunity for a local writer and for the theatre's growing audience for drama to see the best of local professional talent in action.

Reviewer: Peter Lathan