There Came a Gypsy Riding

Frank McGuinness
Almeida
(2007)

The Irish play machine just keeps churning out impressive dramas that fill London theatres, not to mention those on Broadway.

The latest offering from Frank McGuinness is a concentrated piece that intricately dissects a middle-class family at war with itself following the suicide of one of their three children, Gene. His name is surely no coincidence. This prodigal son eventually allows his parents and siblings to reveal to themselves the way in which their genetic pool has made them as they are.

There are many parallels with Conor McPherson's latest work, The Seafarer. Both give great roles to five actors and are carefully crafted domestic plays about haunted individuals with narratives driven by death - and just a touch of the supernatural.

The big contrast is that where McPherson's crew are sodden by drink, McGuinness' may be gagging for it but are bullied into staying on the wagon by Imelda Staunton's harsh Donegal matriarch, Margaret.

The occasion that sparks a visit to the family's west of Ireland cottage is the commemoration of Gene's 21st birthday. This seems a little odd, as the non-celebration is to take place two years after he has cut his wrists and died on the strand a few yards from where they are to meet.

It might be possible to write a thesis about the kitchen in Irish drama and yet again the majority of the action takes place in a (nicely modernised) one. This is designed by Robert Jones who cleverly sets it within an atmospherically wild land and seascape.

For two hours, souls are bared both collectively and individually, as each member of the family is given an opportunity to expose and exorcise their own devils and remove the ghostly shadow that Gene still casts over them all.

Seemingly, each has much to live for. Margaret is a successful college lecturer who has made Ben Jonson her special area of study. Eventually, though, we discover that this tough biddy has a hidden past that cruelly returned to haunt her following the death of her beloved but very wayward son.

Ian McElhinney plays husband Leo, a former bookseller who is now very well-off and runs a pub chain. He too is struggling, as much to communicate with his family as anything else.

Their two children played by Aidan McArdle and Elaine Cassidy both seem witty and well-adjusted but each is a low achiever and their apparent well-being is no more than skin deep.

The strange catalyst for so much of the story telling is Leo's wild, ageing cousin Bridget, played with great comedic wit by Eileen Atkins. She it was that found the dead boy and hid his mysterious suicide note.

It is only at the morbid family celebration that she finally releases it and offers them the chance to achieve catharsis and closure. Her unconventional humour also lightens the tone of what might otherwise be an unremittingly grim play.

There Came a Gypsy Riding is yet another worthwhile addition to the tremendous canon of contemporary Irish drama. It portrays a family, warts and all, and is particularly welcome for the chance that it offers to five excellent actors to give powerful and very moving performances under the direction of the Almeida's artistic director, Michael Attenborough.

Philip Fisher